Three of Belgium's top cyclo-cross racers will not be in the team for the UCI World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic at the end of this month because of a long-running investigation into their doctor, who is accused of providing illegal ozone treatments to athletes. Tom Meeusen, one of the top favourites for the elite race, Laurens Sweeck, the favourite for the U23 race, and former world champion Bart Wellens have been deemed ineligible under UCI rules because of their connection to the case.
The case against Dr. Chris Mertens made headlines back in early 2013 when dozens of riders began being questioned by the authorities, who dug into patient records dating back to 2007 looking for evidence of blood manipulation using ozone therapy. The technique in which blood is withdrawn, treated with ozone, and then re-infused, is purported to treat viral infections. Under the WADA code, any method of blood manipulation is banned.
So far two riders, Pieter Van Herck and Stefan Van Dijk have been handed bans as part of the investigation.
It is not the first time that Meeusen has been kept from racing because of the investigation. In 2013, he was questioned for three hours and held out of the Rome World Cup, and missed the 2013 World Championships. On Twitter, Meeusen expressed his frustration, stating, "[It is] painful that I cannot defend my rights/opportunities on both a human and sporting level. #unfair."
Meeusen is the third-ranked rider in the world in cyclo-cross and was runner-up at the recent Belgian National Championships. The Belgian team will instead consist of world number one rider Kevin Pauwels, second-ranked Wout Van Aert, Belgian champion Klaas Vantornout (5), former world champion Sven Nys (7), Rob Peeters (13) and Sunweb-Napoleon Games duo Gianni Vermeersch (22) and Tim Merlier (33). Reserves include Jens Adams (20) and Joeri Adams (97).
Sweeck, the top-ranked U23 rider behind Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, who will race the elite event, was the outright favourite for the title in the espoir race. Belgium will instead be represented by Toon Aerts, Quinten Hermans, Yannick Peeters, Diether Sweeck, Michael Vanthrouenhout and Daan Soete.