Legend Eddy Merckx, winner of nearly every race on the calendar, is forced to face the current doping polemics with the entire cycling community. The 62 year-old Belgian who reigned from the 1960s to 1970s believes that although the sport is going through a black period, three-fourths of the cyclists are riding clean.
"I hope that cycling rises again. The disease is terrible, the situation continues to be serious, but there are signs of life," said the five-time winner of the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia to Marco Pastonesi of La Gazzetta dello Sport. The sport has been rocked by doping related incidents in the last month involving Patrik Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), Cristian Moreni (Cofidis), Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) and Luca Ascani (Aurum Hotels).
"There a lot of honest guys. I say that three-fourths of the gruppo is clean. The others are at risk. [Tour Director] Christian Prudhomme is right; the riders that are doping are playing Russian roulette with their lives."
He noted that blood doping, as the case with Vinokourov, is a very serious matter. "There is doping and then there is doping. Don't expel Alessandro Petacchi because he took extra sprays [of asthma drug Salbutamol - ed.], and consider he also had a medical certificate. But for blood transfusions I will not have pity."
A French paper issued its steps in ridding the sport of doping and it mentioned shortening the Grand Tours; Merckx disagreed. "This will not change anything. The problems would remain the same. Without doping [the tours] would be slower but the people would not mind."
Merckx was himself at the centre of controversy when he was forced to leave the 1969 Giro d'Italia based on a doping-related incident, however, he always maintained he was a victim of an error or a conspiracy. "It was based on a medicine that was not forbidden. They never did a counter-analysis. The stage in question was insignificant. Further, the private analysis, done right after the positive result, came out negative. ... Everyone is able to make a mistake, even the judicial authority."