03 July 2009

Tour de France: sport or scandal

The 2009 Tour de France kicks off, Dr Ross Tucker takes a look at last year's race, which was rocked by doping scandals, and contemplates the somewhat rocky future of cycling.

The 2009 Tour de France is about to kick off and FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker takes a look at last year's race which was rocked by doping scandals and contemplates the somewhat rocky future of cycling.

Last year a number of top riders in the Tour de France tested positive for banned substances. Most significantly, Italian rider Ricardo Ricco of Saunier Duval tested positive for blood booster erythropoietin (EPO), becoming the third rider to fail a drugs test in the 2008 race after Spanish riders Moises Duenas of Team Barloworld and Manuel Beltran of Liquigas also tested positive for EPO.

Team Barloworld rider, Moises Duenas tested positive for banned substances in an anti-doping test carried out after the fourth stage of the Tour. Team Barloworld suspended Duenas immediately after being informed of his positive test and he did not start the 11th stage of the Tour. His actions led to Barloworld withdrawing their sponsorship from the team.

The 24-year-old Ricco, winner of two mountain stages, provided a urine sample which contained the banned subtance CERA (Continuous Erythropietin Receptor Activator) after the fourth stage, a 29.5 km time-trial at Cholet. His Saunier-Duval team later confirmed they were withdrawing from the race.

Ricco was questioned by gendarmes before the start of the 12th stage between Lavelanet and Narbonne. He was then driven away by them in a Saunier Duval team car. Ricco was one of the riders particularly targeted by the AFLD during the race and had been tested at least four times, French sports daily L'Equipe reported earlier on their website.

All tests on the Tour were carried out by AFLD because the race was held under the auspices of the French federation. That decision came in the wake of an ongoing feud between the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the company which runs the Tour, ASO (Amaury Sports Organisation).

Every year a new scandal
Every year, cycling’s biggest race rolls around in July; it usually leaves us with a bad taste from the doping scandals that threaten to suffocate the sport. Every year, the tour begins with much hope that media will be able to focus on the racing action. Instead, every year throws up yet another scandal in a sport where scandal seems to be a weekly occurrence.

The 2008 Tour de France represented the 10-year "anniversary" of the start of the calamitous doping saga, at least for the current era of cyclists (lest we forget, in 1903, cyclists in the Tour used to take strychnine and wine to dull the pain – the first case of sports doping, perhaps?).

But it was the 1998 Tour that started the current perceptions. Remember the Festina scandal? A Belgian massage therapist, Willy Voet, was pulled over at a border crossing and found to have dozens of illegal substances in his car. He was on the way to the Tour de France, and the drugs were intended for riders on his Festina team.

Police raids, rider disqualifications, tearful confessions and angry denials characterised that particular Tour. Sadly, we have experienced the same in every Tour since.

Previous incidents cast shadow over 2008 tour
In 2007, despite promises and assurances that the sport was cleaning up its image, the Tour was rocked throughout by numerous high profile doping cases. First it was Alexander Vinokourov, one of the heroes of cycling for his tough, never-say-die attitude, who tested positive for blood doping, a practice where a rider takes either his own blood or that of another person, and transfuses it to gain a performance advantage. His expulsion, and that of his team, was all the more painful because he was one of the last hopes for the "human spirit and courage" in the sport.

It got worse. One week later, one of the more exciting tours in recent years (from a competitive point of view, the racing was incredible) was rocked when Michael Rasmussen, the man wearing the coveted yellow jersey of race leader, was fired by his team, Rabobank, for lying about his whereabouts during the months leading up to the race.

Riders are required to inform their teams and the cycling governing body of their whereabouts at all times, to minimise the chances of them disappearing into the wilderness to dope while training.

Rasmussen's dismissal meant that the yellow jersey changed hands at a hastily convened midnight press conference, a scandal from which the race never really recovered.

There were other positive tests, and other riders who left the tour disgraced, but it was these two who stole the headlines. Many European newspapers refused to cover the actual cycling action as a result, and the only press coverage of the Tour in Europe (where cycling is second only to football in popularity) was that of the shameful doping allegations.

'Big deal'
Thus burned, 2008 began with hope and optimism, but a bit of a handicap: defending champion Alberto Contador who rode for a team previously disgraced by doping, and was thus not invited to participate in the 2008 race. Still, it got off to a decent start – no positive tests for the first week.

But then Manuel Beltran of the LiquiGas team was expelled from the tour after testing positive for a drug called EPO over the weekend. Riders have used EPO for perhaps 25 years: it stimulates the production of red blood cells which help carry oxygen to the muscles, improving performance.

In what is a sign of the times and our own malaise and lethargy ("another drug scandal, big deal"), this expulsion went relatively unnoticed in the non-cycling community. The tour organisers even dismissed it as an "inevitable" positive test, considering that 188 riders take part in the tour.

Beltran, a Spanish rider and former teammate of Lance Armstrong, meanwhile requested that his B-sample be tested before he is found guilty. The normal process is to collect two separate samples; the name of the rider is not supposed to be released until both the A and B samples have tested positive.

This is an example of how the system is also at fault, because such deviations from standard procedure opens the sport’s governing bodies to legal attack. The incentive to dope can only be strengthened by the fact that it is possible to challenge a positive test on the grounds of improper procedures. For this reason, the authorities should be above reproach, which clearly, in this instance, they are not.

Proving innocence a difficult task
What complicates matters is that one cannot prove innocence. Recent times have proven that a negative test means very little, since athletes now have access to drugs that are untraceable. The scepticism that has grown over the last ten years cannot therefore be squashed, and most observers, exposed only to the negative media coverage of doping stories, inherently believe that no cyclist is clean.

As for the future, cycling faces its own version of a mountain climb in the Pyrenees. It must try, somehow to win back the trust of fans and, most importantly, sponsors. The sponsors have flocked away from the sport in the last two years, their patience finally wearing thin thanks to scandal after scandal.

That has provided much of the impetus to actually clean the sport up – nothing speaks as loudly as money and when the money is walking out the door, the governing bodies tend to react.

Until then, the 2009 tour rolls on. Ultimately, it depends on how much hope you have left. Perhaps this will be the year?

(Health24's FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, updated July 2009. Dr Tucker also blogs on




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