It was interesting to see what contrasting coverage the French press gave to the Manuel Beltran fallout this morning. The French sports fans' bible L'Equipe seems determined to dismiss the Spaniard's positive test on Friday as a trifling inconvenience, while the Journal du Dimanche maxed out with a full-page doping splash featuring stories on the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD), Riccardo Riccò and Christophe Moreau.
The press room was humming with rumours about Riccò yesterday. Libération had already reported that the Italian has faced four tests since the race left Brest, suggesting that The Cobra was one of up to 20 riders the AFLD had placed under special surveillance. This morning in Toulouse, Riccò's directeur sportif, "Matxin" Fernandez, confirmed to me that his rider had indeed been tested four times, but also wanted to put those tests into context. "He was tested once before the race left Brest, like everyone else, then once along with the rest of the team on the morning of the second stage, then once because he was randomly selected after the time trial in Cholet, and once after he won the stage in Super Besse," Matxin explained.
Matxin went on to suggest that it was "quite normal" that the AFLD should want to create blood and urine profiles of Riccò early in the race. The Giro runner-up, remember, has a UCI-certified haematocrit limit of 51 - one point higher than the usual threshold. "I know his natural values are strange, you know it, the UCI knows it, but the AFLD won't have been totally familiar with his profiles before this race because they don't have all of the UCI's data," Matxin said. "If they're testing him a lot now to work out his parameters, it means they're doing a good job."
According to the Journal du Dimanche, Riccò is one of a number of riders who have been "randomly tested" at least twice already in this race. That group apparently includes Frank Schleck, Fabian Cancellara, Oscar Pereiro, Alessandro Ballan and Damiano Cunego. The same newspaper reported this morning that a French rider was ordered to stop competing for several weeks earlier this year after the French Federation noticed anomalies in his quarterly blood tests. They even threw in a couple of clues: the rider in question has already abandoned the Tour and Agritubel strongly denies that it's Christophe Moreau. Now there's something to do with your day when you've finished the Sunday Times crossword.
Alternatively, you could check out this spoof Jan Ullrich journal. The funniest thing I've read in a while.
Digressing back to the dreaded "D" word, it occurred to me last night that there's scope for an unfortunate double entendre in the "I'm Doping Free" tattoo which Cunego has occasionally sported on this Tour. Tell me this: does it mean that he's riding clean or that he's not paying for his drugs? And is that why the campaign logo is a smiley face?
Just kidding, Damiano.
The Little Prince could do probably do with a few laughs. His Tour so far hasn't exactly been a success story. This morning he was 17th on general classification, just over two minutes behind our leader, everyone's third favourite Luxemburger, "Grim" Kim Kirchen.
Cunego's Lampre directeur sportif, Maurizio PIovani told me this morning that the time his man lost on stage 7 to Aurillac may have been part due to his crash early in the stage, part due to indifferent legs and part due to battered morale. "I think that getting dropped on a one kilometre climb to Super Besse the previous day was a big blow for Damiano psychologically," Piovani said. "To me, it looks as though his legs are improving every day, but he obviously needs to get through these next two days in the Pyrenees in touch with Valverde, Evans and the Schlecks. Two minutes isn't that much to get back, especially as he'll have a few days to find his legs before the Alps, where the race will really be decided."
Piovani had an interesting take on how the race for yellow will develop over the coming days.
"Evans is the strongest in the race, but CSC haven't tried anything yet, and I'm sure they will. If they fire one of their leaders down the road, who's going to chase? I think Andy Schleck is extremely dangerous. The only other team with multiple cards to play is Caisse D'Epargne, because Pereiro is going really well. Then there's Kirchen. The way he's riding now reminds me of Di Luca in the 2007 Giro. Everyone said that Di Luca was a Classics rider, that he was going to blow, but he never did. Who's to say the same won't happen with Kirchen."
Tune in tomorrow for an update on my Campaign To Coin A New Nickname For Mark Cavendish. Meanwhile, I'm off to find the buffet...