Hopes of an entirely clean peloton contesting this year's Tour de France should not be taken too seriously, if the claims of a top anti-doping expert are to be believed.
The world's biggest bike race clicks into gear Saturday for three weeks of what organisers hope will be a scandal-free edition. Going on the past editions in the 10 years since the infamous Festina doping scandal of 1998 - where the widespread use of banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) was revealed - the odds are unfortunately against the race.
In recent seasons, the sport has hit rock bottom as one affair has followed another and confessions from former stars of the peloton have been made. The only positive side to the numerous affairs which seem to resurface every July is that cycling is taking an active stance against doping as it bids to win back disgruntled fans and sponsors.
The launching of a biological passport which charts the blood parameters of all professional riders is the International Cycling Union's latest initiative. It will be used to compare samples and search for eventual anomalies in a bid to beat the cheats.
Jean-Pierre de Mondenard, a top anti-doping expert whose exhaustive 'Dictionary of Doping' is a widely respected work in the field, has saluted the sport's most recent efforts to rid the sport of drugs cheats. But he believes the cyclists, and indeed other top athletes, are ultimately two steps ahead of the scientists and anti-doping controllers because of the "20 or so undetectable products" that he says can be used to enhance performance, and which are not targeted in current tests.
As a result, he is skeptical over claims by even cyclists themselves that there has been a shift in attitudes towards doping.
"I don't really believe there's been a renaissance in the peloton as regards the doping problem," Mondenard told AFP. "It's been 10 years since the Festina scandal but 10 years is simply not long enough to change a system which is so deep-rooted. It will take at least 25 years for attitudes towards doping to radically change."
Like most years, the 2007 Tour began with renewed hope that the fight to rid the sport of the drugs cheats was finally being won. But it did not take long for the long shadow of doping to descend on the race. Shortly after the start, German Patrick Sinkewitz was thrown out when it emerged that a doping test from the previous month had tested positive for testosterone.
Midway through the race one of the yellow jersey favourites, Alexandre Vinokourov, was thrown out with his entire team, Astana, after he tested positive for blood doping. Denmark's race leader Michael Rasmussen then reluctantly stole the limelight when it emerged he had missed a series of doping tests prior to the Tour, casting huge doubts over his integrity as a clean rider before he was eventually thrown out.
Among the wider public there is a general belief that the Tour de France is so gruelling that it is impossible to race on food and water alone. A majority of cyclists, including reformed doping cheat David Millar would beg to differ.
But De Mondenard says there are still plenty of performance-enhancing products which are being used by top athletes because they remain undetectable.
"Since the fight against doping began in the 1960s, there have always been undetectable substances," he added. "In the 1960s riders moved from one amphetamine to the next as they gradually became detectable, and it's no different now. There are still around 20 products which remain undetectable and which can be used to cheat.
"One of the main problems is that doping is efficient - and if you have undetectable substances on the market, they're going to be used."
Tour de France anti-doping schedule
Details of doping controls prior to and during the 2008 Tour de France which begins in Brest on Saturday:
Who carries out the controls?
After a rupture between the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the company which runs the Tour, ASO, the race is being held under the auspices of the French Cycling Federation (FFC). As a result, all anti-doping controls will be carried out by the French National Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD).
Before the Tour
The AFLD carried out approximately 60 random and targeted tests on French and foreign riders in the lead-up to the Tour from the 20 teams taking part in the race. The results of those tests may be released during the race. On July 3 and 4, the traditional pre-race blood screenings on all 180 riders will be carried out. All samples will be analysed by the IOC-accredited laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland and the results will be integrated into the UCI's blood passport scheme.
During the Tour
AFLD boss Pierre Bordry says the quality of the 180 or so controls carried out will take precedence over the quantity, and there will be more random tests. The AFLD says it will try to break past traditions by not systematically controlling riders who have anticipated being tested.
Automatic tests on the yellow jersey and stage winners will be maintained. Random tests will also be carried out by the AFLD at the team hotels, between the hours of 0600 and 2100 local time. The AFLD will take blood and urine samples, but, in accordance with French law, can also take samples of hair and nails. It is only in the event that both A and B samples are positive that the latter will be analysed. Urine samples will be regularly analysed for EPO (erythropoietin), as well as the "traditional" substances like corticoids, stimulants, anabolic steroids). Blood samples will also be analysed, one part of the sample being sent to Lausanne for testing for human growth hormone, the other part being sent to the French anti-doping laboratory at Chatenay-Malabry, which is also responsible for analysing all the race's urine samples.
After the Tour
In the event of any positive doping cases, two scenarios are possible. If the rider is French the FFC will take over the dossier. If he is foreign, the AFLD takes over his case. In both cases, however, it is the world governing body the UCI which has the final decision in any eventual sanction.
© AFP 2008