By Gregor Brown in Pau
The Tour de France was rocked by news that Astana's battered team leader, Alexander Vinokourov, tested positive for a homologous blood transfusion after Saturday's time trial in Albi. L'Equipe reported on Tuesday afternoon that the Kazakh's blood had shown evidence of a transfusion from another person with a compatible blood type in an analysis done in the Châtenay-Malabry laboratory. The positive test was later confirmed by the Astana team.
Upon receiving the news, the Astana team suspended Vinokourov and quit the Tour de France, according to a statement which read, "According to the ethical code of the Astana Cycling Team, Alexander Vinokourov has been suspended of the team with immediate effect. The rider asked nevertheless [for] a B-analysis."
ASO president Patrice Clerc received the news on Tuesday, and requested the Astana leave the Tour, which the team accepted. "I was told by [Astana general manager] Marc Biver that Alexander Vinokourov had tested positive after a blood test following the time trial. I asked Marc Biver that the Astana team leave the Tour de France and he accepted."
The news broke while Saunier Duval was holding its press conference and its rider David Millar was asked to respond. "That is a surprise. I don't know what to say," a shocked Millar stated. "Vino is one of my favourite riders. He is a guy of class. Given what we have done, with our current situation, we may as well pack our bags and go home," continued the Scot.
After minute of reflection, he clarified, "No, I don't believe the Tour should stop here. We are 40 years after Simpson's death and the Tour still goes on."
Vinokourov was his team and country's big hope for a win in the Tour until he crashed on stage five and rolled in more than a minute down on the leaders, his knees dripping with blood. He received dozens of stitches, but soldiered on and came back to win the stage 13 time trial by 1'14 ahead of Australian Cadel Evans. He lost time again on stage 14, rolling in nearly 29 minutes down before storming back to a stage win on Monday.
The Kazakh was rumoured to be targeted prior to the Tour by the UCI as one of the 'men in black' - riders who try to avoid out of competition controls by training in anonymous clothing in out of the way places. Astana denied that this was anything other than a way to avoid being pestered by fans.
Homologous blood transfusions have been detectable since the 2004 Olympic games, and American Tyler Hamilton had the dubious honour of being the first cyclist to be suspended for blood doping, an activity in which he repeatedly denied taking part.
The team's withdrawal removes fifth placed Andreas Klöden, eight placed Andrey Kashechkin, and 23rd placed Vinokourov from the picture, moving CSC's Carlos Sastre into fifth ahead of Euskaltel's Haimar Zubeldia, T-Mobile's Kim Kirchen and Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Discovery's Yaroslav Popovych now round out the top ten overall.