The Tour de France hadn’t even started and already there was a hint of the absurd. Just after midnight on Saturday, half an hour after the UCI had already issued a statement confirming that it was too late for Astana to replace Lars Boom in its nine-man selection, the team’s two press officers distributed a batch of photocopied statements to the journalists who had assembled outside the lobby of the Carlton President Hotel on the outskirts of Utrecht.
Boom had returned low levels of cortisol in a pre-race test and, according to the voluntary rules of the Movement for Credible Cycling, Astana would have to withdraw him from their Tour selection and withhold him from racing for a minimum of eight days. One contingency plan involved substituting Boom with reserve Alessandro Vanotti, though manager Alexandre Vinokourov had already made it clear to L’Équipe that he would not countenance starting the Tour with just eight riders.
“Alessandro Vanotti will arrive in the Netherlands Saturday morning to undergo physical and blood tests and await a UCI decision on the matter,” read the Astana statement handed out early Saturday.
The assembled journalists naturally pointed out that the UCI decision on the matter in hand had already been taken, but they were curtly informed that Astana had no further comment to make on the matter.
And so the performance continued throughout Saturday morning, with Vanotti arriving in the Netherlands for a race that he surely knew he would never start. UCI president Brian Cookson visited the Astana hotel, too, and reportedly confirmed that the governing body had no objection to Boom’s participation in the Tour.
MPCC president Roger Legeay, meanwhile, hinted that Astana would be ejected from the group at its next meeting in September. “It seems clear to me that if you don’t respect the rules, you’re excluding yourself from the family,” Legeay told Le Parisien.
Boom simply got on with the task in hand, completing the 13.8-kilometre opening time trial in 23rd place, 44 seconds down on stage winner Rohan Dennis (BMC) and just a second behind Astana team leader Vincenzo Nibali.
The Dutchman was cheered raucously by his fellow countrymen all around the course and there was generous applause, too, when he wheeled to a halt past the finish line. Both there and at the Astana team bus, he took the time to explain his viewpoint to reporters in Dutch and English.
“I didn’t expect to not start,” Boom said of his reaction when informed of his low cortisol level on Friday afternoon. “I was relaxed before this Tour. What happened yesterday was not perfect preparation before the Tour but according to the UCI, it’s ok to start and I’m happy that we have started now.”
A low level of cortisol can be an indication of fatigue, but also of cortisone use, though the MPCC rules are carefully worded to state that the control is a health measure rather than specifically an anti-doping one. Boom denied that he had used cortisone in the lead-up to the Tour and like others who have fallen foul of a pre-race cortisol test in the past, he blamed his low reading on his asthma medication.
“I trained really hard for the last few weeks and I’ve already had an asthmatic inhaler for the past 10 years,” Boom said. “After the Dauphiné I was a little bit sick. When I’m sick I have problems with the lungs and I do a little bit more of the inhaler. It’s allowed by the doctors but I have to do a test now and again tomorrow to see how it is.”
Before the start of the time trial, Vinokourov had defended Astana’s decision to field Boom, pointing to the fact that his participation did not contravene the UCI’s anti-doping regulations. “Mr. Cookson has confirmed over the phone that the UCI has no problem with Lars taking the start,” Vinokourov said.
“We are clean when it comes to the UCI rules. We follow the rules. He has an authorisation to take products against asthma, so I don't see why we should send him home. Especially in front of the Dutch crowds who wouldn't understand.”
In the past, Astana has adhered to the letter of MPCC rules, such as when the team did not treat Vincenzo Nibali’s wasp sting at the 2013 Vuelta a España with cortisone and when they pulled out of an agreement to sign Franco Pellizotti at the end of that season as four years had not yet passed from the beginning of his biological passport ban.
Astana also suspended itself from the Tour of Beijing following Maxim and Valentin Iglinskiy’s positive tests last season, and its membership of the MPCC was part of the case for the defence when the UCI looked to remove the team’s WorldTour licence due to its spate of doping cases in the past year. A break with the MPCC now seems inevitable, however.
“We will wait for decision of Roger Legeay,” Vinokourov said. “I do not want to leave the MPCC, but it's their decision.”
Like that of the UCI the previous night, one imagines that it is a decision that has already been taken.