Hopes of a scandal-free Tour de France in 2009 may be pie in the sky to some, but cycling's most obstinate cheats have been warned they face a rocky road towards glory on the world's biggest bike race.
Days before the race, Tour organisers were given perhaps the biggest assurances yet that the anti-doping authorities will, in the words of world cycling chief Pat McQuaid, "do all they can to protect the integrity of the race".
That will amount to "three to four hundred in-competition tests" during the July 4 - 26 epic, which will also be preceded by at least one pre-race test for the entire peloton in the next fortnight.
Eight to 10 riders are then set to face automatic testing after
each day's stage, with the numerous random tests that can be
carried out by either the UCI, Wada or the AFLD. In a sign that the authorities are not afraid to openly declare war on the biggest stars, around 50 of the near 200-strong bunch will face special targeting from the International Cycling Union (UCI) in the coming weeks - the criteria for which is wide-ranging.
'We are hunting down some of the race's potential stars'
"The criteria for this is on a sporting basis but it also comes
from existing knowledge we have from the biological passport,"
added UCI chief McQuaid. "We don't have 50 suspicious riders - we have some suspicious riders, but that group is composed of all the main players, potential stage winners or contenders for the overall."
Professor Pierre Bordry, the chief of the French Anti Doping
Agency (AFLD), had a busy Tour last year when the AFLD carried out the majority of the tests as, due to a feud, the Tour was not run as a UCI event.
He has been welcomed to remain in the fray by McQuaid, and the Frenchman suggested they are already hunting down some of the race's potential stars.
"We have information, that could be seen as suspicion, which forms the basis of our criteria for targeting these (50) riders," said Bordry, who is credited with exposing the seven riders who, during or after last year's race, tested positive for the latest generation of EPO, CERA.
Crucially, the use of the UCI's biological passport is emerging as a potentially major deterrent in the fight against the cheats. Designed to record physiological parameters throughout a rider's career the programme registers changes, dramatic or otherwise, in the blood parameters that are key to indicating possible doping.
Other professionals to be named and shamed
Earlier this week Spaniard Anton Colom was revealed as having tested positive for EPO, after he was targeted with an
out-of-competition test because of inconsistent blood parameters on his biological passport.
The UCI next week will also name and shame several other
professionals as suspected drugs cheats, all of whom were snared thanks to the biological passport.
At the Tour, the entire peloton will be asked for two blood
samples -instead of the usual one - during the pre-race blood
screenings which are held a day before the Tour starts.
McQuaid explained: "If we see something when we screen the first sample, then it means we have a B sample at hand. And we will be storing samples for future analysis."
Asked if they have recently had indications that new, previously undetectable products were being used, Bordry told AFP: "There are always indications that this is the case. All we can do is try to face up to them - notably by keeping the samples beyond the competition for future analysis. Last year we had the information before the Tour that EPO CERA was being used. That is how we managed to stay one step ahead.
"But I hope that those who are tempted to use banned substances think twice. By storing the samples, there's a good chance that one day we will catch up with them."
'There's always one bad apple'
As numerous previous editions have shown, there is always one, or several, bad apples in the Tour de France bunch. However hopes are now high that the race, which since the
earth-shattering fall-out of the Festina scandal in 1998 has
bounced from one doping affair to another, can finally get the
"The Tour de France in 2009 will probably be the most tested sports event in history," promised McQuaid.
Bordry believes the warnings to deter the cheats are already
being heard: "I'm convinced the majority of the peloton are not
taking drugs and believe that the extremely rigorous anti-doping
plan we have in place is bearing fruit." – (Sapa, June 2009)
First blood passport case imminent
Doping test questioned