Thu, Jul 26, 2007 - Page 20 News List

Fresh doping scandal rocks Tour de France


Astana cycling team riders Daniel Navarro, left, and Antonio Colom of Spain leave their hotel in Pau, France, as their team prepares to pull out of the Tour de France cycling race on Tuesday.


Cycling and its premier event, the Tour de France, were reeling from yet another blow that threatened what was left of the event's credibility: A failed doping test by one of its biggest stars on Tuesday.

Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for a banned blood transfusion after winning last weekend's time trial, prompting his Astana team to pull out and sending police on a raid of the team hotel.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme said that although the race would go on, the latest drug case showed cycling's testing system doesn't work.

"It's an absolute failure of the system," he said. "It is a system which does not defend the biggest race in the world. This is a system which can't last."

Even before Tuesday's bombshell, Tour leader Michael Rasmussen was battling doping suspicions because he skipped drug controls before the Tour start. He still seems likely to claim victory in Paris on Sunday.

All this on top of the lingering scandal involving 2006 champion Floyd Landis, who was unable to defend his crown because he failed a drug test during last year's Tour.

"It's almost impossible to be at the front of the pack these days without doping," said Dick Pound, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency and a frequent critic of the way cycling is managed.

Vinokourov, who placed third in the 2003 Tour, is a fan favorite, admired for his grit, determination and string of stage wins at this and previous Tours.

He had been considered a pre-race favorite to win, but crashed in the first week of the three-week race. With stitches in both knees, he struggled for a few days but recovered to win stages on Saturday and Monday -- a turnaround that now seems too good to be true.

His positive test was announced by his team, whose manager, Marc Biver, said Vinokourov was sent home. The backup B sample test results were expected by the end of the week.

"Alexandre denies having manipulated his blood," Biver said, adding that the rider believed his crash may have resulted in "blood anomalies in his body."

Pat McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union, said he couldn't comment as long as the B sample result wasn't confirmed.

"We have a process in place, and we have to see this process through," he said in a telephone interview.

Many of the cycling world's recent stars have been tainted by doping allegations.

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner, retired after he was linked to a doping ring in Spain. Italian Ivan Basso, once seen as the next big thing after Lance Armstrong, is serving a doping ban.

And Armstrong's seven consecutive wins are widely viewed by many in France with suspicion.

Astana was disqualified from the Tour on the eve of last year's race after five of its riders were implicated in a vast Spanish doping probe known as Operation Puerto.

French sports daily L'Equipe, which first reported Vinokourov's positive test on its Web site, said the analysis was conducted by the Chatenay-Malabry lab on the outskirts of Paris. It said two distinctive types of red blood cells were found in the A sample and showed that Vinokourov received a blood transfusion from a compatible donor shortly before the time trial.

A senior French anti-doping official confirmed to reporters that there was a positive test for a blood transfusion taken from a rider at the Tour on Saturday, but said he didn't know the name of the cyclist involved. He said the test found two different types of blood, one from the rider, one from a donor.

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