Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme has warned cyclists, their teams and sponsors who pour millions into the sport that the noose is tightening around the drugs cheats.
The world's biggest bike race was rocked Thursday by a third positive doping case when it was revealed that Italian star Riccardo Ricco had tested positive for the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin).
Prudhomme said he regretted having to deal with such negative publicity. But he believes that catching the cheats is the only way to clean the sport.
"Of course it's not good for the reputation of our race, or the sport of cycling, but we are happy the cheats are being caught," Prudhomme told reporters in Narbonne following the 12th stage.
"I spoke to the managers of all the teams at the start of the race and told them that they held the keys to making this race one to remember, for being drugs-free," he said. "Obviously, not everybody has listened."
The 24-year-old Ricco provided a urine sample which also contained the banned substance CERA (Continuous Erythropietin Receptor Activator) after the fourth stage, a 29.5 km time-trial at Cholet. It later emerged that other samples provided by the rider could reveal similar results.
His Spanish team initially took to the start line for the 12th stage from Lavelanet to Narbonne, although they made a hasty retreat to their bus shortly before 1200 GMT.
Saunier-Duval Scott then announced they had decided to pull out of the race and all other cycling activities until they get to the bottom of the affair.
"We've decided to suspend all cycling activities until we find out what has happened," team spokesman Matxin Fernandez said.
Prudhomme had said earlier that ultimately, it showed the controls are now working: "We have often had doubts in the past that the controls are actually working. What has happened so far just goes to show that the noose is tightening around those who still believe they can cheat and get away with it."
However the Frenchman, without mentioning the name of Saunier Duval's Swiss manager Mauro Gianetti, said he had doubts over his reputation.
"After speaking to the management of Saunier Duval this morning they decided to leave on their own accord," Prudhomme said. "But in general, I certainly don't feel that their manager is a model of virtue. There's two ways to look at how they left the race. One is to say they are responsible (for Ricco's positive test), but that would make it appear like an admission (of guilt).
"The future will reveal more to us, hopefully the near future."
Prudhomme confirmed he had held talks with Saunier Duval earlier in the race after reports claimed that readings from a blood sample provided by Ricco had alerted anti-doping controllers to possible doping.
"Yes, we spoke with them," added Prudhomme, who admitted to having suspicions of the team following Leonardo Piepoli's 10th stage win atop the Hautacam climb, when teammate Juan Jose Cobo came second.
"I was a little suspicious when those two (Piepoli and Cobo) gave us that crushing display of superiority on the Hautacam."
Prudhomme would not say whether Saunier Duval would be automatically left off the invite list for next year's race, but said his opinion of the team's manager would unlikely change.
"I don't think my opinion on the person in question will change in three months, six months, two years or even five years," added Prudhomme. "But for the team's sponsor, it's a catastrophe. They are the first ones to be cheated."
Ricco's positive test is the second in two years for the team, who were stunned by Iban Mayo's positive test for EPO at last year's Tour. Although his case has yet to be settled Mayo was cleared by the Spanish federation. It was later claimed by the Ghent laboratory handling his B sample that the sample was unusable.
Piepoli also escaped a ban following a positive test for salbutamol at last year's Giro d'Italia, where he won a stage and helped Ricco and former teammate Gilberto Simoni to stage wins.
A runner-up at last month's Giro d'Italia won by Alberto Contador, Ricco is considered the biggest star to emerge in Italian cycling since the late Marco Pantani, a former winner of the Tour and Giro.
He fell under the doping spotlight last week when it was reported that he was one of several targets of the AFLD. He is reported to have a naturally high haematocrit level of over 50, meaning the volume of oxygen-rich red blood cells in his blood, that could aid his performance, is higher than the norm.
The UCI introduced a 'legal' limit of 50 for cyclists in 1999, after many cyclists and endurance athletes were found to be using EPO in dangerous proportions.
Ricco last week brushed off the suspicions, saying: "I know I have nothing to worry about. The International Cycling Union (UCI) know that and I have a certificate from the UCI to prove that they are naturally high."
However the news of his positive test has been applauded by many cyclists.
"If he's cheated, then throw him out," CSC rider Stuart O'Grady told AFP at the 12th stage start line. "As far as I'm concerned they should be hit with a lifetime ban."
Isle of Man sprinter Mark Cavendish, who won the stage to become the first Briton to win three stages in a single edition of the race, was also unforgiving.
"Obviously it shows that the tests are working, people are getting caught and the sport is changing for the better," he said. "Cycling's not just a job, it's a passion. Maybe the people who resort to doping don't have the passion that myself and a lot of other people have."
Patrice Clerc, the president of the Tour's holding company Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), also applauded the news.
"Obviously, it's yet another tumultuous day for our sport but we welcome the fact that another rider has been caught. We can't clean up the sport without dirtying our hands," said Clerc. "We made it clear before the Tour: we've said we want to fight the cheats, and the AFLD outlined its determination to use all measures at their disposal. Obviously some people didn't listen."
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008