As the Tour de France begins with the individual time trial today in Monaco, cynics of the sport worldwide pondered when the first doping scandal will hit the Tour.
Last month Spaniard Antonio Colom (Team Katusha) was suspended after testing positive for EPO (erythropoietin – which accelerates red blood cell production). A week later Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI – the cycling governing body) announced that five riders, including the former world road race champion Igor Astarloa of Spain, faced charges due to doping violations. Three days ago Thomas Dekker was suspended by his Silence-Lotto team after having tested positive for EPO following a 2007 test.
This shows, according to UCI President Pat McQuaid, "that as a federation that we go out to seek and catch guys and then throw them out of the sport." The UCI has gone from conducting a couple of hundred out of competition tests in 2004 to 10,000 tests a year on its field of approximately 800 riders.
"Although we can't guarantee it will be doping free Tour de France this year," says McQuaid, "I don't believe there will be any major scandals on the tour. There may be one or two guys caught for doing something stupid, but I think the risk is too big now and the large proportion of the peloton is clean."
It is clear the UCI are leading the way in sports' fight against doping, but has recent doping that has been associated with the Tour de France, Operation Puerto in particular, placed the sport in a worse situation than the Festina scandal of 1998?
"I don't think it has made much difference to one or the other," says McQuaid who was President six months after Operation Puerto broke. "When you say scandals, are the scandals? Puerto was a scandal because it was uncovered by police and there were reckoned to be 50 riders involved in it, but catching guys on the Tour de France, is that a scandal? I don't think it is. It may be treated as a scandal by the media, but it's not a scandal.
"You catch guys that are cheating and you throw them out. That happened on the Tour de France in 2007 and 2008 so in my mind that is the authorities doing their work correctly. The fact you might catch two or three guys out of two hundred has to be looked at as well. I never regard positive (drug tests) as a negative thing for the sport. They do have a short term impact with negative media by riders testing positive, but it is better in the long run."
Operation Puerto was the most important doping case this century, taken against Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes (former doctor with the Kelme cycling team) in which he was accused of administering prohibited doping products to athletes. It came to light before the 2006 Tour de France and Tour favourites Ivan Basso, Jan Ulrich and Francisco Mancebo were forced to withdraw from the Tour.
Although roughly 200 athletes were involved the investigation solely concentrated on the 50 or so cyclists implicated. It has been marred by unwillingness the Spanish Judge, Antonio Serrano. In March 2007 Serrano closed the case citing a lack of evidence. The case was then reopened in February the following year only again to be closed in October '08, this time stating that no criminal offences had been committed.It was again reopened in January, but the painstaking pace at which it continues questions the desire to uncover the truth.
"Cycling did all it could in Operation Puerto," states McQuaid. "We processed files on fifty odd riders in it but those files couldn't progress because the Spanish judiciary blocked it. They wouldn't give us the information we needed. The Spanish federation had about 30 riders in there and the Spanish justice would not allow those files to progress. They kept the case open but it was blocked and it continues to be blocked by the Spanish Judicial system.
"I would question whether there is a real will in Spain to get to the bottom of it and to close Operation Puerto properly. I don't think it is there. Since 2006 we have tried, the World Anti-Doping Agency has tried, and the International Olympic Committee has tried. We have all put pressure on the Spanish to move the thing forward and they haven't done so."
The UCI received a boost in its battle to rid doping from the Sport from International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge in Lausanne last month. "They were words of support," says McQuaid of Rogge's address at the UCI Management Board meeting. "He stated as far as he's concerned there is no international federation that does more in the fight against doping than cycling does.
"That is important for us and within the other international federations we are recognized as a federation that is way out there and proactive in terms of the fight against doping. We have advanced quite an amount, but it will still take some time before cycling has the ethics golf has, if we ever have that ethic" concluded the UCI President.