News feature, July 25, 2007
Vows that the show will go on
When Tour de France officials were informed of Alexandre Vinokourov's positive test control for a homologous blood transfusion resulting from a post-stage 13 blood check, they responded by asking the rider and his team Astana to leave the world's biggest bike race. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown was in Pau to capture the responses from Tour director Christian Prudhomme and ASO President Patrice Clerc.
Alexandre Vinokourov staged one of the Tour's most surprising comebacks when he recovered from a disastrous first half of the Tour to win the stage 13 time trial in Albi. Coming into the day over eight minutes down on GC, his dominating victory had fans going wild over the teal blue clad rider who had clawed his way from 18th overall back inside the top ten as a result of the win.
When 'Vino' cracked in the Pyrenees on stage 14 and lost more than 29 minutes and then rebounded on Monday's stage 15 to Loudenvielle, where he made the early break and then stormed away for another stage win, his fans and team were elated. But dark clouds quickly formed overnight when the Kazakh rider got the results of a blood test taken after his time trial victory which showed evidence of an illegal blood transfusion.
A counter-analysis is expected by Wednesday, but the Tour took no time in asking the Switzerland-based team to go home. Vinokourov, as well as team-mates Klöden, Savoldelli, Kashechkin, Ivanov, Navarro, Colom, Rast and Iglinskiy, will not start on Wednesday when the Tour departs from Orthez.
"I was told by [Astana's General Manager] Marc Biver that Alexandre Vinokourov had tested positive after a blood test following the time trial. I asked Marc Biver that the team leaves the Tour de France and he accepted," said Clerc to a room packed with journalists.
The news hit the French Grand Tour like a bag of bricks and some people speculated that organisers of the Tour, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) would decide to stop the show. Clerc and Prudhomme both gave a strong statement to the contrary and insisted that the fight against doping won't stop, even if it has to be improved.
"I have never thought to stop the Tour," stated Clerc. "I said to Prudhomme that we have started a war against doping and unfortunately in wars there are losses, but it is out of the question to stop, we must go on." Prudhomme agreed, even if this is yet another dark event to rock the Tour in his second full year of tenure.
"I told the riders at the star in London that it was a great opportunity to start again," the director recalled. "The riders are playing with a loaded gun, Russian roulette. ... I will speak to the riders before the start tomorrow. I will especially tell them not to give up."
Astana was invited into the Tour as a wildcard with teams Agritubel and Barloworld. It came with the ambition to win the Tour with Vinokourov, who in the past has ridden with T-Mobile and Casino. However, due to a crash on the stage to Autun (stage 5), his chances were weakened and he shifted to trying to win stages, which he did, in the now infamous Albi time trial and the torturous mountain stage to Loudenvielle, one day before his positive result was announced.
"We were not told about the control because the organiser is not told about tests," stated Prudhomme of the test that was taken on Saturday. "We have no explanation on the scientific point of view that is the responsibility of the UCI. The only thing we can do is to ask that the team be expelled."
"We have to be careful," he noted of the Astana team's wildcard invitation, which looks in retrospect to have been a poor decision. "It has some of the best riders in the world. ... We though it deserved a place. I have regrets now, yes," Prudhomme admitted.
The two men of ASO were side by side confronting the world of cycling fans who are now questioning every one of their heroes' actions. The sport leads the way in antidoping controls and they confirmed that they are trying the best they can to continue with this line.
"I am convinced that we act in love of the sport and those who love the sport. I am convinced we will the battle but we need an ethical revolution. ... We all feel cheated but the one who cheated was Alexandre Vinokourov. The fans want riders who don't cheat. I want to carry on the battle.
"The system does not work; we need to change that system. I won't give any details on a possible new system but it is clear it [the current system] is a failure and it does not defend this popular race. The system cannot carry on the same way; it is a failure. ... We attracted over two million fans in London and we need a system to protect this.
He will contact the Tour's participants before the start of tomorrow's final Pyrenean stage. "I will especially tell them not to give up."
David Millar of Saunier Duval commented earlier in the day that the sport still lives on 40 years from the doping-related death of Tom Simpson on the Tour's famed summit of the Mont Ventoux. Clerc recognised the sports resilience. "This race is 104 years old. It has had moments of crisis and glory, today it is a black period but the race does not stop," he noted. "This sport deserves that we do all we can to save it."
"We won't let anyone hurt our child," added Prudhomme. "The ones that are cheating are playing with a loaded gun, we won't let this happen!"
The 2007 Tour was already hit with news of doping when it was announced that its current race leader Michael Rasmussen failed to announce his whereabouts for out of competition testing leading up to the race. The 33 year-old Dane as responded to these allegations but it has not won over the hearts of fans, and especially the race's organisers.
"Michael Rasmussen should not have started the Tour," stated Clerc. "Why? In a period of crisis a champion has to be an example. In addition, his attitude, which we only know now, makes us believe that we should have refused his participation."
Vinokourov is believed to be in Toulouse, he went there with his good friends Nikolai Proskurin, vice-president of Kazakhstan's Cycling Federation. Cyclingnews will continue with more news resulting from the Vinokourov blood control as it happens.
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