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It may not have pleased Discovery Channel team boss Johan Bruyneel to hear the management hierarchy of the Tour de France spending much of yesterday's 2006 Tour launch appealing for an increased ethical stance on doping rather than offering a single word of praise to recently retired seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong, but the Tour's stance underlines the concerns about the doping issue in France at the moment.
Although the furore over what are reported to be Armstrong's dope control samples from the 1999 Tour, which L'Equipe recently alleged showed evidence of EPO, was not specifically mentioned, the fallout from this incident seemed to hang over the gathering in Paris' Palais des Congrs on Thursday. Tour co-directors Christian Prudhomme and Jean-Marie Leblanc both appealed to cycling's authorities to help end the culture of doping in the sport, and they were backed in this call by the president of Tour owners ASO, Patrice Clerc.
Prudhomme called on the World Anti-Doping Agency, headed by the outspoken Dick Pound, to help organise testing of riders in the weeks leading up to next year's Tour. "It seems a move which is necessary," he said. "We can't have guys disappearing for two to three weeks without us knowing where they are. Let's make it possible for the controllers to find the riders wherever they are before the Tour."
The Tour hierarchy have already met with Pound to discuss the issue, and the WADA president is reported to be keen to lend support to the initiative - as long as it also receives the backing of the International Cycling Union.
Leblanc, who has been through this before in the wake of the 1998 Festina scandal, described the sport as being at another crossroads. "I said it in 1998, and I'm saying it again. We're at the crossroads of ethics and chaos," he said. "I call on the riders, the teams and their doctors to make sure we don't make any mistake about which direction we should be taking."
With rumours now widespread that some riders are blood doping immediately before and after stages of the Tour in order to avoid detection in early-morning swoops by the UCI's 'vampires', there have even been calls for blood tests to be carried out on riders on the start line.
However, recently elected UCI president Pat McQuaid said he thought the rumours were baseless, and also wondered about the practicalities of testing riders at the very start of races. "I'm not a medical expert, but I've spoken to the medical experts and to raise the haemoglobin (haematocrit) from 44 to 53 or 56 means that a couple of litres of blood have to go in (the body), which takes around an hour and a half," McQuaid told AFP. "And if you're in the situation where riders are spending an hour and a half in the morning putting blood in and the same taking it out at night, then it's just absolutely impossible. It's not going to work."
McQuaid said that, based on the conversations he has had with medical experts, daily blood doping is not taking place. "The practicalities, from what I've been told by the medical people means that it's just not possible."
Leblanc summed up the problems his organisation faced in dealing with doping issues. "We don't establish rules and procedures, we don't hand out sanctions. Since the federations can't deal completely with this menace, let's appeal to the supreme authority, which is WADA," he commented. "With the means it has at its disposal, backed by its rules and procedures, it will perhaps be able to do better, notably with regard to increasing the number of random tests on riders when they are training."
It probably won't have passed the attention of most readers that this issue pits the UCI against two of its most vocal and persistent critics in the shape of ASO and Pound. McQuaid will no doubt be reaching for the hard hat he inherited from predecessor Hein Verbruggen, as discussion of the doping issue will surely only become more intense as the new season comes into view.
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