A top anti-doping expert believes this year's Tour de France will simply provide another example of how drugs cheats can beat the doping controls.
The Tour clicks into gear this Saturday, with the fanfare of the London prologue around some of the capital's world famous landmarks aiming to override a series of recent damaging confessions and allegations. The Astana team of yellow jersey contender Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan has been forced to deny doping claims in recent days, and since then a top advisor to the team has been sacked. The fallout from the 14-month long 'Operation Puerto' scandal in Spain, which led to a two-year ban for Italian Ivan Basso, has yet to settle.
Following a confession last month by 1997 Tour winner Bjarne Riis that he used the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) during his career, Germany's former Paris-Nice winner Jörg Jaksche alleged last week that he was encouraged to dope by the managers of his former teams.
After the tumult of last year's race, which began and ended on a dark note due to doping scandals, organisers and cycling's world ruling body the International Cycling Union (UCI) are desperate to avoid another controversy. One of the measures taken has been to demand all 189 participating riders at the July 7-29 race to provide a DNA sample as a way of proving they are not linked to the Spanish doping affair which erupted in May 2006.
French doping expert Professor Jean-Pierre de Mondenard feels the UCI's new anti-doping charter, which all teams must sign prior to the start, is a ploy to paper over the cracks. And while he applauds the increase in the number of random doping controls being carried out by the governing body, he says the UCI are powerless to stop those who want to cheat because many of the substances used are undetectable.
"More random tests are the way forward. But even going looking for suspect cheats can be a waste of time," he told AFP. "There are too many undetectable products around for the doping controls to be efficient. It's a masquerade. Everyone knows it's easy to get around the controls."
As well as being a passionate amateur cyclist, De Mondenard is a world authority on doping in sport. Recently he published the respected "Dictionnaire du Dopage" - a 1200-page who's who of doping substances, and who has been caught using them.
One drug he cited and which he claims is used on a widespread basis in sport is Synacthen, also known as ACTH. According to one definition, the drug - made synthetically - "promotes the synthesis and release of the other adrenal steroids, namely aldosterone and the adrenal androgens."
De Mondenard said it is only one example of a product which has befuddled the controllers. "In his allegations (Jörg) Jaksche talked about Synacthen, in the Operation Puerto affair there was Synacthen found in a cool box," said De Mondenard. "Synacthen has been commercialised since 1969 in France, it is forbidden since 1999 - and it is still undetectable!
"How can we realistically talk about a fight against doping? It's a joke. You can't fight against something that has been around for over 30 years, and which you can't still detect."
Contacted by AFP, the UCI said their anti-doping chief was unavailable for comment on the claims by De Mondenard. A spokesman for the world ruling body did concede there may again be cheats on this year's race, but that it would be virtually impossible for the winner to pull on the yellow jersey without being caught.
"In May and June we carried out 160 random anti EPO tests. At the same time last year we had carried out 34," the spokesman said. "The UCI will also be carrying out 400 blood controls during the race, to go on top of the urine tests that are done on the stage winner, the yellow jersey wearer and the riders picked at random.
"It may be easy to dope, but it's impossible to dope and win the Tour de France."
De Mondenard, however, insists that athletes are always one step ahead. "For them, when a doping product or method becomes detectable they move on to something else," he said, citing American cyclist Tyler Hamilton, who was banned after testing positive for a homologous blood transfusion.
"Shortly after he (Hamilton) was caught, Santi Perez, his teammate, was caught doing the same thing. Now, who else has been caught since then? No one. Because scientists can now detect homologous blood transfusions, it's no longer of any use. It's the professionalisation of dopers. Every time the fight against doping moves ahead, the dopers move along too.
"There are also a whole range of 'borderline' substances being used which are efficient, can be used to dope, but which are not banned and so not targeted during the controls. All the doping controllers look for are the substances they are capable of finding."
© AFP 2007