Thursday, July 17, 2008

More Drug Busts at the Tour de France

[Riccardo Ricco]

There had been two positive tests for EPO in the early stages of this year's Tour de France, and this after all the scandals of the past two years.
Spanish veteran Manuel Beltran -- a former teammate of seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong -- was sent home for testing positive for EPO after the first stage this year. Another Spaniard, Moises Duenas Nevado, was detained by police and expelled from the race on Wednesday after testing positive for EPO -- like Ricco, after the fourth stage.
Now there is a third, Riccardo Ricco, who has won two stages of this year's tour and finished second in the Giro d'Italia back in May. He was currently ninth in the GC standings.

From Cycling News:
Italian rider Riccardo Riccò of Saunier Duval has tested positive for blood booster Erythropoietin (EPO), French sports daily L'Equipe reported on its website on Thursday. According to the paper's Damien Ressiot, one of the climber's urine samples collected by the French Anti-Doping Agency AFLD showed traces of a third generation EPO called CERA (Continuous Erythropoietin Receptor Activator), despite there being no WADA-validated test for the drug.

The team's buses and cars were reportedly stopped by gendarmes and searched, and the police were seen taking bags of items away.

The Saunier Duval team has voluntarily withdrawn itself from the Tour de France, and said it would not compete in any races until further notice. Directeur sportif Joxean Fernandez Matxin said he was as surprised as anybody. "We only found out ten minutes ago. The entire team will stop racing, not only in the Tour de France. We suspend the activities of the team until we understand what has happened."

Riccò, who won two stages in the Tour de France (the sixth and ninth), was ninth on general classification before the news broke on Thursday morning. The Italian's impressive performances have in the past been explained by his naturally high hematocrit level.

The Italian from Spanish team Saunier Duval was part of a targeted group of riders. Since the start of the race in Brest, the AFLD performed numerous anti-doping tests on him, at least four according to L'Equipe.

At the start of stage 12 from Lavelanet to Narbonne, Riccò was taken from his team bus into a team car, which took him to the police station. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown confirmed that the Italian was taken into police custody for questioning.

Fernandez described the final moments before Riccò was driven off. "He sat in the team bus and was not able to say anything. We didn't want to make a scene with the police. They let us drive him away in the team car. A police officer accompanied him in the car."

While the first two positives in the Tour will likely be upheld with the B sample test (they always test two samples), this one is a little more suspect in that the positive result is for a substance that has not accepted test.
Professor Michel Audran is one of the world's leading experts on blood doping. He is also one of nine independent experts chosen to act as consultants in the formulation of the UCI's biological passport. Daniel Friebe, Procycling features editor spoke to Audran this morning within minutes of L'Equipe's website announcing that Riccardo Riccò has tested positive for an EPO derivative after stage four of the Tour de France, the individual time trial around Cholet.

Daniel Friebe: In the last twenty minutes we've heard that Riccardo Riccò has tested positive for an EPO-like product. The early reports suggest that Riccò used CERA or Micera. a so-called third generation EPO. What's your reaction?

Michel Audran: Wow. I'm stunned. I'm amazed they're saying it's Micera, simply because there's no validated test for that yet. The World Anti-Doping Agency is working on a test, but it certainly doesn't exist yet.

DF: What exactly is CERA, or Micera to give it its commercial name?

MA:It's a delayed-action EPO, which has a different molecular mass from EPO. It's only been commercially available since the start of the year. We can tell when someone's used it but we can't declare them positive. In that respect it's like Dynepo, another EPO-like product. We know that Micera was being used on the Giro, so I'm not surprised that it's also turned up at the Tour. But I would be very surprised if they AFLD had declared Riccò positive for Micera, for the reasons I've just mentioned. Maybe they searched Riccò's room and found the product itself...

Read more of this interview.

Adding fuel to this year's controversies around drugs is that the Tour organizers are using their own doping lab rather than that of of the UCI, the international cycling federation. Michel Audran thinks they are targeting specific riders: "What the AFLD have done very well is target particular riders." This accusation has been made in the past around Lance Armstrong and his variuous teams in the Tour.

As much as it sucks for cycling that this is happening, it also seems to be proof that the organizers are trying to clean up the sport. But as long as there is so much pressure to win, and to perform at the impossibly high levels required to compete in the three week stage races, there will be drugs.

Still, it doesn't sem to be as bad as last year's tour:

The Tour continues to struggle to eradicate doping after last year's scandal-plagued event in which two teams withdrew and race leader Michael Rasmussen was kicked out just days before the end for lying about his whereabouts to avoid pre-Tour testing.

Cofidis dropped out after Cristian Moreni of Italy tested positive for testosterone, and pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov's Kazakh-owned Astana team was kicked out by race organizer ASO after he tested positive for blood doping.
Hopefully, things will get better and more riders will stay clean.

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