Mon, Jun 29, 2009 - Page 18 News List

Spiced-up Tour gets ready to roll


France’s anti-doping crusaders are stockpiling needles for testing blood and cups for sampling urine, while two new books on Lance Armstrong have just been released in France.

Must be about time for the Tour de France.

The seven-time champion is back from retirement, four years after his last victory. Teammate Alberto Contador, the 2007 winner and a top pre-race favorite, returns after his Astana team wasn’t allowed to compete last year.

They are allies, but could become rivals too.

The race starts on Saturday with a challenging 15.5km prologue in Monaco, the tiny principality in southeast France. The pack will then head out along the Mediterranean, through the Pyrenees, across central France, into the Alps and then up the fabled Mont Ventoux a day before the July 26 finish in Paris.

Riders will dip into Spain, Switzerland and Italy during the 3,500km trek and face 20 major mountain climbs during the three weeks.

Tour designers have spiced up the route and revived some rules from the good old days in hopes that fans will have something — anything — to get their minds off the drug use that has marred cycling’s premier event in recent years.

Judges from UCI, the sport’s governing body, will be back, a year after they were kept out because of a bitter spat with Tour organizers over doping that has now been patched up.

The UCI has rolled out its “biological passport” anti-doping program, in which samples were taken from 840 professional riders to determine their body chemistry profiles. Any suspicious fluctuation from those levels could lead to penalties, even if no specific substance turns up in tests.

France’s anti-doping agency, the AFLD, says it’s going to target suspicious riders, rather than focus on random tests used in previous years, and will test for an unspecified new drug. The agency has also been authorized to freeze samples taken during the Tour. This allows them to be tested in the future for drugs that haven’t yet been identified as performance enhancers.

“We know there are some particular substances and methods, and we are going to try to detect them, sooner or later,” said Pierre Bordry, head of the AFLD, which helped nab six cheats at last year’s Tour.

“There are things that aren’t found in blood, but I’m not going to give an example, because I’ve learned over the years the people who advise athletes on doping adopt their programs based on drug-testers’ mindsets,” Bordry said in an interview on Thursday.

For Armstrong, who famously insisted he was the world’s most-tested athlete during his glory years and has never tested positive, the welcome back to a still largely suspicious France may not be warm.

Just weeks before the Tour’s start, two books — La Grande Imposture (The Great Impostor) by anti-doping doctor Jean-Pierre Mondenard and Le Sale Tour (The Dirty Tour) by Pierre Ballester and David Walsh — have come out in France to capitalize on the media frenzy over the American’s comeback.

Both books lay out repeated suspicions about Armstrong over the years, though neither breaks significant new ground.

Doping allegations have already depleted the field this year: Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, the winner of the Dauphine Libere stage race and the top cyclist this year in the UCI rankings, has been forced to sit out because he is banned in Italy — which the Tour visits on July 21 — over doping allegations.

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