The Tour de France was rocked by a third positive doping scandal Thursday following the news that Italian Riccardo Riccò tested positive for banned substances.
Riccò, who won two climbing stages last week, was taken into custody by French police amid scenes of chaos outside his Saunier Duval team bus before the start of stage 12.
His positive test for the banned blood booster erythropoietin (EPO) was confirmed by the French national anti-doping agency (AFLD), which is carrying out all tests on the race as the race is being held under the auspices of the French federation.
The 24-year-old Riccò provided a urine sample which also contained the banned substance CERA (Continuous Erythropoietin Receptor Activator) after the fourth stage, a 29.5 km time-trial at Cholet. His Spanish team initially took to the start line for the 12th stage from here to Narbonne, however the yellow-clad riders returned to the team bus shortly before 1200 GMT.
Saunier-Duval then announced through a spokesman 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. "Riccò is not just any rider, he's a top rider. So for the sake of our team and the Tour de France we have made this decision. We can't act as though nothing has happened, we have to accept the reality."
It is proof, said Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme, that the battle to weed out the cheats is working.
"We have to look at this in a positive light," said Prudhomme. "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."
Riccò becomes the third cyclist to be taken in for questioning by French police. On Wednesday Spaniard Moises Duenas of the Barloworld team was taken into custody after it was revealed he had also tested positive for EPO. Another Spaniard, Manuel Beltran, left the race under a cloud last week after he also tested positive for the banned hormone.
Riccò, however, is by far the biggest name to have been snared by the anti-doping authorities. A runner-up at the Giro d'Italia last month that was won by Alberto Contador, Riccò is considered the biggest start to emerge in Italian cycling since the late Marco Pantani, a former winner of the Tour and Giro.
Riccò 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 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.
EPO and other blood boosting drugs increase the volume of red blood cells, pumping more oxygen into the blood and therefore allowing athletes to work harder and longer. Riccò last week brushed off the suspicions.
"I know I have nothing to worry about. My blood values are high, but for me they are totally normal because I've had them since I was a child," Riccò said of the reports following his victory on the ninth stage. "The International Cycling Union (UCI) know that and I have a certificate from the UCI to prove that they are naturally high."
Riccò also won stage six of the race.
© AFP 2008