Other Sport Features
Tour de France fights for its credibility
By Siegfried Mortkowitz Jul 4, 2007, 9:58 GMT
Paris - The question dogging the 2007 Tour de France, which starts Saturday in London, is if anyone will believe that the winner did not use illegal substances to give himself the winning edge.
The sport of road racing, and its most prestigious event, the three-week Tour de France, have been so tarnished by a series of doping scandals and well-publicized confessions by former riders that Tour organizers are again resorting to extreme measures to try and save the credibility of the race.
As a reminder of the cloud under which this year's Tour is being run, for the first time in its history, no rider in this year's race will wear the number 1 on his jersey.
That number is reserved for the title-holder, but the identity of last year's winner remains to be confirmed, with the man who finished first, Floyd Landis, fighting to invalidate a test that found synthetic testosterone in his blood after a crucial stage of last year's race.
Tour organizers also declared that anyone involved in doping investigations will not be allowed to start, recalling the chaotic beginning to last year's Tour, when nine riders, including three title favourites, were excluded on the eve of the prologue because of their alleged involvement in a Spanish doping scandal.
Even if this does not happen this year, the race will be run in the shadow of an announcement by the International Cycling Union (UCI) that six or seven top-level riders had not been found squeaky clean in random out-of-competition tests this spring.
An announcement of the identity of the riders will not be made until a confirmation by the B samples, the UCI said.
However, one rider already threatened with being barred from the Tour is sprint superstar Alessandro Petacchi of Italy, who tested positive for salbutamol during the Giro d'Italia in May.
Petacchi has a doctor's note saying that he suffers from asthma and is therefore allowed to use the drug, but only to certain levels. Petacchi claims he made an honest mistake.
'I may have used the spray a bit more than usual, but I haven't done anything illegal,' he said.
Unfortunately for him, illegality is not a prerequisite for being barred from the Tour.
His case opens another potentially embarrassing issue for the Tour. According to Samuel Abt of the International Herald Tribune, an estimated 40 per cent of professional riders - a far higher rate than the general population - officially suffer from asthma, which allows them to use salbutamol and other, similar substances that would be illegal otherwise.
Any sports fan would not be out of bounds for asking aloud why so many asthma sufferers have chosen to pursue such a demanding sport as multi-stage road racing.
The run-up to this year's Tour has also been seriously perturbed by a series of doping confessions, none more wide-ranging and potentially damaging than that of Germany's Joerg Jaksche.
In a long interview with Germany's Der Spiegel news magazine, Jaksche became the first rider to admit he worked with Eufemiano Fuentes, the chief suspect in the Spanish doping probe in which 58 riders were implicated and which led to the exclusion of the riders from last year's Tour.
Jaksche said he used doping substances since 1997, while riding for such high-profile teams as Polti, Once, Telekom, CSC and Liberty-Seguros. He also said that team leaders such as Bjarne Riis (CSC), Gianluigi Stanga (Polti, now Milram) or Walter Godefroot (ex-Telekom) were aware of it.
In addition, Riis himself admitted having used illegal substances to win the 1996 Tour de France, and has offered to return the winner's yellow jersey.
Finally, the favourite to win this year's Tour title, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, said at the weekend that he was working with Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor who has been accused of giving his clients illegal substances.
Ferrari's collaboration with seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong remains one of the reasons the unprecedented victory series by the retired American remains under a cloud of suspicion.
'At the level where riders have equal chances to win the Tour, the difference in how they work can provide the smallest advantage,' Vinokourov told the daily L'Equipe. 'That's the reason I work with Ferrari.'
Tour organizers and cycling fans are ready to believe him. But he - and the other 188 riders in the Tour - will be severely and often tested.© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur