Tour de France News feature, July 18, 2008
The directors of the Tour de France came out in harsh criticism of the Saunier Duval-Scott rider Riccardo Riccò and his team manager Mauro Gianetti after it was announced Thursday that Riccó failed a doping control taken after the stage four time trial in Cholet. However, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) leaders insisted that the Tour's third failed doping test is a sign that the sport is becoming cleaner.
The start of the Tour's twelfth stage in Lavenalet was plunged into chaos when the police arrived to escort a devastated Riccò, winner of stage six and nine, away from the race and into custody following news that he had tested positive for EPO. Riccò had to endure the booing of the crowds while being led away. Public opinion on the rider, who idolized the late Marco Pantani, canted towards disbelief after his remarkable performances in the Giro d'Italia and the Tour's ninth stage.
The Saunier Duval team subsequently decided to leave the Tour de France and suspend itself from further competition until the situation could be assessed. Some riders had to return to the team bus, since they were already lined up at the start despite the departure of their leader Riccò.
At a press conference near the stage finish in Narbonne, ASO's president Patrice Clerc and Tour director Christian Prudhomme confirmed they had received notification from the French Anti-doping Agency AFLD of the test result. Both directors expressed satisfaction with the anti-doping work of the AFLD, while Prudhomme also cast doubts over the performances from Leonardo Piepoli and Juan Jose Cobo on Hautacam, and questioned the credibility of Saunier Duval team manager Mauro Gianetti.
"It's a rough day for cycling. We continue to deplore the stupidity, and there is no other word, which is to defy the rules that have been established," said Clerc. "But I also believe that it is not surprising that we have caught them."
"I think we will go on to win the game," he continued.
"You can not want a clean cycling, and not want to clean up cycling," said Clerc. "What happens now is the illustration our unwavering determination in the fight against doping. The AFLD, which acts totally independently, said it was determined to make every effort. And it has. It seems that some did not believe, or not understand, our resolve."
"It's not easy and it will take time, but we're coming closer to an acceptable situation. The goal is to have only rare and isolated doping cases. We need credibility and to have that we want all the cheaters out," Clerc said. "Three riders are no longer in the race, because they have cheated. But the vast majority of the peloton is made up of honest riders."
Prudhomme couldn't hide his doubts over the team's performances in the Tour de France. The Tour director said that the Spanish team decided to pull out of the race themselves, but went on to question the performances of the team, in particular its dominating ride on the Hautacam stage. "We talked with the Saunier Duval team and they decided to leave the race on their own. There was one rider caught in the team and the manager immediately reacted by saying it was an isolated case.
"The fact that they decided to leave the race shows that they are responsible, or that they are guilty," Prudhomme continued. "I don't know if it is organized doping, but I saw – like all of you – that there were two riders a level above the competition on Hautacam," he said, referring to the one-two stage finish of Leonardo Piepoli and Juan Jose Cobo.
"I have my opinion on the manager [Mauro Gianetti] – a person who does not have good virtue - and that opinion will not change in two months, five months, six months, two years, three years... for the sponsor this is terrible news," said Prudhomme.
A Spanish journalist asked the ASO leaders whether they felt that doping was a Spanish problem, as UCI president Pat McQuaid recently said. Prudhomme didn't share McQuaid's opinion and said, "riders are doped, whatever their nationality."
"At the start of the Tour in Brest I said, behind closed doors, to riders: 'You have the keys.' That is to say that they have a choice to do their job, or do something else… And I note with pleasure that the gap between those who cheat and those who want to catch them is rapidly diminishing."
"I think we have to remember, in essence, the positive side of this situation. What happened today is good news for the fight against doping, and is great news for riders themselves. Those who attack cycling are persecuting the wrong enemy. The enemy is doping."
Prudhomme went on to relate the story of the chaotic second edition of the Tour de France in 1904 when director Henri Desgrange thought the Tour de France was done for. Six months later all stage winners and multiple other riders were disqualified, among them the first four riders in the general classification. "Back in 1904 they wanted to stop the Tour and today the race still exists. The Tour de France is a monument and we have to continue our fight against doping to safe the monument. We will not quit," said Prudhomme.
Clerc continued the line of reasoning. "Do you prefer us to act like ostriches and stick our heads in the ground, or to act like we do now? We've taken a u-turn with our bike and it isn't an easy road we're riding, but the message is that we are winning the battle. It's a fight for all those clean riders out there and for the monuments like the Tour de France.
"The independent policy of the ASO is the key and is proving to pay off. We will always have cheats – because that's the way it is in sports – but in the future we need to have isolated, rare cases. We are determined to get rid of as many cheats as we can," said Clerc. "The tests are showing their efficiency and now we have to stand ground and continue our fight."
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