Cycling's world ruling body announced Wednesday that five cyclists would face doping charges uniquely on the basis of irregularities found in blood samples from their biological passports.
Former world road race champion Igor Astarloa of Spain is among the three Spaniards and two Italians who are facing doping charges, according to the International Cycling Union (UCI).
The news comes just over a fortnight before the start of this year's Tour de France, being held July 4-26, although none of the riders snared by the UCI was expected to star at the three-week epic.
Astarloa, who stunned the field to win the world title at Hamilton in Canada in 2003, has earlier in his career been a 'target' of cycling's anti-doping authorities.
Since the biggest win of his career six years ago, the Spaniard has had a mostly mediocre career and moved from one team to another winning seldomly.
As well as Astarloa, fellow Spaniards Ruben Lobato Elvira and Ricardo Serrano have been snared by the UCI. The two others are Italians Pietro Caucchioli and Francesco De Bonis.
The UCI said in a statement the five had "violated the anti-doping rules on the basis of information from blood profiles on their biological passport".
Last week Spaniard Anton Colom was revealed to have tested positive for the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) following a test taken due to suspicious blood readings on his biological passport.
A day later the UCI announced that more riders were set to fall victim to the efficiency of the cycling authorities' newest weapon.
"Following a meeting of experts in Geneva last week, the UCI has decided to start disciplinary actions against a certain number of riders on the basis of evidence taken from their biological passports," said UCI chief Pat McQuaid last Wednesday.
"They will be informed early next week, we will inform their teams and national federations and then we will make a public statement, naming the riders. The process has already started."
It is not the first time a cyclist will be punished without failing a dope test. Italian star Ivan Basso was banned just over two years ago based on evidence linking him to the Operation Puerto affair.
But in what is being seen as a new strategy by the UCI, this will be the first time that athletes who have not tested positive will face doping charges purely on the basis of readings on their biological passports.
Although plagued by doping scandals, cycling has balanced that out by pioneering an anti-doping strategy that, gradually, some of the bigger sports are beginning to admire.
Over a decade ago cycling was the first sport to introduce pre-race and general blood testing in sport. Riders with elevated levels of haematocrit (volume of red blood cells in the blood), an indication - though not proof - of doping, were immediately suspended.
The UCI's biological passport scheme has already been adopted by two other sports that have been plagued by doping, cross-country skiing and biathlon.
However, before proceeding with sanctions on athletes using proof from the biological passport, both winter sports are awaiting the publication of a crucial disciplinary guide from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Athletics' world ruling body -- the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) -- is also interested by this new approach towards fighting doping and, in discrete fashion, has already begun to profile blood samples from elite athletes in order to proceed with more pertinent targeting.
© 2009 AFP