The Tour could be the first sporting event to use blood tests as part of its anti-doping protocol.Increasingly under pressure amid the recent wave of doping scandals, the UCI (International Cycling Union) has today suggested that it will hit back with a groundbreaking new dope-testing strategy at the Tour de France. Five days before the Tour is due to set out from Lige, Belgium, UCI head doctor Mario Zorzoli told news agency AP on Monday that the 2004 Grande Boucle could be the first ever sporting event to use blood tests as part of its anti-doping protocol. Until now, blood tests had only been used within the scope of UCI health tests, or as a "trigger" for follow-up urine tests on anomalous samples. While failure of a health test incurs only a two-week "rest period", infringements of the UCI's anti-doping protocol are sanctioned with bans ranging from several months to four years. "We have decided to introduce anti-doping blood tests," Zorzoli confirmed today. "Nothing is official yet, but we know that our regulations permit us to perform blood tests and we're not worried about doing precisely that. It should happen: we have methods available to us to do it. I believe that it will be a first in a sporting event." If put into force, the new tests could effectively sound the death knell for products such as synthetic haemoglobin and human growth hormone, and also catch out riders practising blood transfusions. In all three cases the move would mark the fruition of years of research. The development of a test for human growth hormone alone has taken almost a decade and has cost several millions of dollars. As recently as two weeks ago, WADA-sponsored research scientists at the University of Southampton told procycling that they were "pessimistic" about a test for the banned hormone being approved in time for the Athens Olympics in August. According to AP, the decision to introduce the blood tests follows a meeting between UCI officials and the French Ministry of Sports and Youth around a month ago. In early May the UCI had revealed to procycling that the French Chtenay-Malabry laboratory was on the brink of perfecting a test to detect synthetic haemoglobin. Contacted on Monday morning, Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc appeared to confirm the advent of blood tests at the Tour: "The UCI will be able to detect human growth hormone, I think," said Leblanc. "They tell me that taking the blood sample is a very long process. Well, on the morning of the stage or the evening after it, and taking into account the capacity of the laboratories, we are trying to find a way to work in harmony with the various authorities."