PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM
It was the quintessential, Bastille Day, Tour de France scene: luminous blue skies, the picnic-hamper brigade out in force, a route fit for a coach tour through the southern Alps towards the Cote d'Azur. and customs officers rummaging for drugs in two Tour de France team vehicles on the D942 in Tallard.
It was 11.20 local time when, en route to Thursday's stage finish in Digne-Les Bains, procycling's Renault Mgane approached the intersection south of Gap where the D942 joins the A51 motorway. With the Tour de France road-book recommending this deviation for suiveurs not travelling on the day's 187km race route, a sizeable convoy of accredited vehicles was heading in the same direction. Among them, as is the case every day on the hors course itinerary, were several cars, team camper vans and mechanics' lorries. So far, so unremarkable.
Only on closer inspection of the two vehicles in a stopping area in sight of the A51 page did it dawn that the Phonak team camper probably hadn't parked up alongside an unmarked police car to exchange restaurant recommendations - and that our reporters may be witnessing an attempted drugs raid.
A further hundred metres down the road these suspicions were confirmed. Adjacent to a roundabout which fed into the A51 toll booth was a car park which lay empty but for a yellow transit van devoid of any distinguishing marks and a white car marked 'Douane' or 'Customs'. A circuit of the roundabout and a right turn led into the car park and close enough to see the van's rear double-doors propped open to reveal its interior and a slender figure dressed in a Liberty Seguros T-Shirt. Three customs officers were stooped over a suitcase laid open on the tarmac. Another urgently signalled to the procycling vehicle to clear the area.
Early this afternoon the Tour press-corps received confirmation of the raids and the news that three other teams' vehicles had been stopped in random controls. The French authorities stated that the searches were not intended to target specific vehicles and that no seizures were made. Ag2r Prvoyance, Bouygues Telecom and Davitamon-Lotto were the other teams whose vehicles were searched as they made their way to Digne-Les Bains.
While the Tour could let out a collective sigh of relief this afternoon, the fact that the searches uncovered no incriminating evidence will do nothing to ease the convoy's heightening drugs neurosis. Following Evgeni Petrov's failed haematocrit test on Monday, the Frigo couple's arrest, and revelations about a new, test-proof method of EPO abuse on this site yesterday, Thursday's raids will please those, like Amore e Vita team boss Ivano Fanini, who believe that doping is still widespread in the peloton.
Speaking yesterday, Fanini commented that "Frigo's arrest is only the latest in a long line of incidents which demonstrate how competitive cycling is degenerating." Fanini, who earlier this year was sanctioned by the UCI for branding its 50 per cent haematocrit limit an "invitation to dope", scorned the view that record average speeds in the Tour so far could be accounted for by favourable winds in the first 10 days of the race.
"The current average speed in the Tour is astronomical and it's inexplicable that in 1996, when there were still no EPO tests and it was easy to dope, the top speed was never more than 41 or 42 kilometres an hour [.] Can it possibly be that such a quantum leap is merely the fruit of technical progress? If the people in charge of teams do little or nothing to eradicate the use of banned substances in their own teams, then we'd all be better off staying at home for the good of cycling."
PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM