Scandal still looms

Though cycling boasts of its tough doping laws, few believe those or the pre-Tour bans have ended the problem.

Published July 18, 2006

GAP, France - Through the picturesque countryside and the strenuous mountain climbs, suspicion rides with the cyclists at the Tour de France.

Despite the largest antidoping sweep in years on the eve of the race's start, many still believe the sport is tainted and at least some of its athletes are cheaters.

"It's not because there was a big kick to their ant hill that we can let ourselves think it's finished, and that everything has been solved," said Jerome Pineau, a French rider with the Bouygues Telecom team.

The housecleaning right before the July 1 start removed some of the favorites from the first Tour of the post-Lance Armstrong era.

But some experts don't believe the expulsions will remedy the doping culture that revolves around suspect doctors, unscrupulous team coaches and riders hoping for an edge.

And if there's any time when riders might be tempted to rely on blood doping to boost performance, some experts say, it's now, as the Tour heads into the final mountain stages with several cyclists in contention for the overall leader's yellow jersey.

In blood doping, an athlete has blood drawn weeks or months before a competition, then passed through a centrifuge to separate the oxygen-transporting red cells.

The red-cell-rich blood, put back in through transfusion, can aid tired muscles, providing an extra boost.

The question is how to step up the fight against doping.

Scottish rider David Millar, back at the Tour after a two-year doping ban, favors an amnesty for cyclists who come clean. The German T-Mobile team, after the scandal broke, told its riders to avoid seeing trainers or doctors whose reputations have been called into question.

Armstrong used to boast that he was the world's most tested athlete.

And cycling's rulebook is already among the strictest in pro sports when it comes to drugs.

All cyclists are subject to unannounced drug tests throughout the year and must tell the sport's authorities where they are at all times, often via fax or the Internet.

"It's definitely a pain, because sometimes I can't tell my mother or my wife where I'm going to be in a week," said George Hincapie, an American on the Discovery Channel team. "I mean, right now I don't really know where I'm going to go after the Tour.

"It's hard to keep up, but it's important."

Patrick McQuaid, the head of cycling's governing body UCI, says no other sport ousts competitors from its events when their names turn up in doping investigations, even before their guilt is proven.

That's just what happened to nine riders - including 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, who won the Giro d'Italia in May - after their names emerged in a doping probe centering on a Spanish doctor.

The doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes, was arrested in May after Spanish police seized drugs and frozen blood at a Madrid clinic, samples thought to have been readied for blood doping. He has denied wrongdoing.

"I'm sure there are still other Dr. Fuentes' in the world," Pineau said. "One store has been closed, but others have been opened."

The allegations were the biggest to rock the Tour since a scandal involving the Festina team nearly derailed the race in 1998.

Millar, a Saunier Duval rider, says he is now clean. He's urging others to join him. "In the next few years, the big guys in cycling have to say they are doing it clean. They have to actually say it," he said, adding that many are afraid to do so because "they have skeletons in their closet."

Ullrich said Monday his lawyers have asked Spanish officials for written clarification of the allegations. He stressed he hasn't been charged - or found guilty - of anything.

"In a country governed by law, not only myself but every individual is innocent until proven guilty," he said in a statement posted on his Web site.

LANCE BACK: Lance Armstrong was back in a familiar spot - at the top of L'Alpe d'Huez.

The retired seven-time Tour champion pedaled to the Alpine ski resort on Monday's rest day, one day before riders attempt the grueling 116-mile 15th stage.

Armstrong plans to watch the stage on TV, visit the team bus before Wednesday's 16th stage and join manager Johan Bruyneel in the Discovery car on the course route.

Armstrong's presence could serve as motivation for his former Discovery teammates - none are in the top 10 in the overall standings.

Today's stage ends with a 21-bend climb up L'Alpe d'Huez, a famed ascent where Armstrong decimated the opposition during a tense time trial in 2004.