Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping following his victory in last Saturday's time-trial stage in the Tour de France.
The 33-year-old had lost all chance of winning the Tour with a dismal performance in Sunday's 14th stage but bounced back to take Monday's 15th stage in the Pyrenees where he was once again tested. According to as yet unconfirmed reports from within the Tour he may also have failed the test after that stage victory too.
The rider's 'A' blood sample from the stage 13 time-trial is reported to have contained two different red blood cell populations according to the Tour's doping laboratory located at Châtenay-Malabry near Paris. This suggests that the Kazakh had received a transfusion very shortly before the beginning of the stage, using the blood of a compatible donor. Tests on Vinokourov's blood taken after his stage 15 victory yesterday are currently underway but according to L'Equipe newspaper, the second red blood cell population would still be detectable in the latest sample.
The rider's Astana team announced after his test failure they were quitting the race. "The anti-doping control on Alexandre Vinokourov, which was carried out on July 21 after the time trial in Albi, has tested positive," read a statement released by the Kazakh team.
"According to the ethical code of the Astana Cycling Team Alexandre Vinokourov has been suspended from the team with immediate effect. The rider has asked nevertheless for a B sample analysis.
"Informed by the Astana management, the organisers of the Tour de France invited the team to withdraw, which was immediately accepted."
Vinokourov, whose performance in Monday's stage was feted in the French press with headlines such as the 'Courage of 'Vino'', had been criticised before the Tour by Pat McQuaid - chief of the International Cycling Union (UCI) - for his association with Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari.
Vinokourov, one of several former and present Telekom/T-Mobile riders to have either admitted or failed drugs tests, is not the first rider to be found to have been blood doping - American Tyler Hamilton and Spaniard Santi Perez being also found to have done so.
Vinokourov's case is a similar one to Hamilton's having in effect used blood from a compatible donor.
Ironically Vinokourov was unable to race in last year's Tour de France because five members of his then team Liberty were embroiled in a Spanish doping affair - it was mainly due to his efforts that he persuaded the Kazakh Government to sponsor the Astana team.
Tour bosses Christian Prudhomme and Patrice Clerc said tonight that the show must go on at the Tour de France, despite Alexandre Vinokourov's positive test for a blood transfusion after the Kazakh's victory in stage 13.
Clerc claimed that the idea of stopping the Tour "never crossed [his] mind."
"We have undertaken a ruthless war on doping and there's no question of us quitting," Clerc told journalists in Pau's Palais Beaumont this evening. "We are going to see this through to the very end. We're going right to the end of our convictions."
The Tour president had earlier revealed that Astana team manager Marc Biver notified them of the Vinokourov's positive test on Tuesday afternoon. Clerc said that Biver immediately agreed to withdraw the entire Astana team from the race.
Prudhomme said that a "revolution", rather than simple "changes", needed to take place to rid the sport and the Tour of doping. "I said to riders when the Tour started in London that they had a great opportunity. That opportunity's been wasted," sniffed the Tour director. "Anyone who cheats is playing Russian roulette..." he added.
Clerc admitted that he now regretted having handed Astana a wild-card invitation to the Tour. "I told them about the ethical rules and I regret being cheated. The only thing I respect about that team is that they agreed to leave the race immediately."
Prudhomme and Clerc announced that they will address the 151 riders left in the Tour tomorrow morning, prior to the third and final Pyrenean stage from Orthez to Gourette.
The news has overshadowed the reports from a press conference given by Michael Rasmussen in which he spoke about his attempts to notify the anti-doping authorities as to his whereabouts. In the conference the Dane appeared to get his dates hopelessly wrong.
©AFP2007 and BikeRadar