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Que Cera, Cera

In both this July and the last, I have written a piece praising the increasingly vigilant and effective stance the Tour de France is taking on detecting the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, despite the short-term collateral damage the sport ends up inflicting upon itself. The general assumption has been that, on balance, it does the sport of cycling good to ruthlessly pursue the cheats, as this will only serve to discourage others in the future.

For once, it appears that this year the French authorities have finally got the jump on those who would seek to gain an unfair advantage. But at what cost?

By working with the pharmaceutical company Roche, a test was developed for Cera, the company’s third-generation form of the banned blood-booster EPO, just in time for this year’s Tour. All of a sudden, a drug which had previously been undetectable by conventional testing was anything but, and instead of being several steps behind, the testers were suddenly one step ahead.

One by one, offenders were caught. Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas were relatively minor names, but the big one was Riccardo Ricco, winner of two stages on the Tour and runner-up in May’s Giro d’Italia. (And, innocent before proven guilty and all that, but feel free to draw your own conclusions about Duenas’s team-mates, Felix Cardenas and Paolo Borghini, who abandoned after crashing into each other the day after Duenas’s disqualification.)

Worse was to follow. Leonardo Piepoli, stage-winner and team-mate of Ricco, was kicked off the Saunier Duval team for a serious breach of the team’s ethical code. It didn’t require a genius to work out exactly what that was, an assumption which has been validated in the last week with the results of a revised, upgraded test on Piepoli’s Tour samples confirming the presence of Cera.

And it hasn’t stopped there. Re-testing of the samples of Stefan Schumacher (winner of both time trial stages) and Bernhard Kohl (King of the Mountains, third overall and Schumacher’s room-mate) has also led to positives in each case.

In case you’re counting, that’s six confirmed positives, including the winners of five stages, and the holder of one of the major jerseys.

Sigh.

And who can say whether this will be the end of it? Even if there are no further revelations, the cumulative damage wreaked on the reputation of the Tour is enormous. Is anything we see in the month of July (or in the other grand tours of Italy in May and Spain in September) even remotely credible now?

As I’ve said before and will say again, it is not fait to assume that cycling is the sport with the worst problem, simply because it is the one in which the problem has been most exposed. Other sports which have been targeted with rigorous testing – athletics, in particular – regularly identify and punish drugs cheats. It is not at all far-fetched to assume that if testing procedures and budgets were as advanced in other sports where the ability to compete and train more intensively for longer periods is a distinct benefit – football, tennis, swimming, baseball, basketball, the list goes on and on – then we might be viewing these sports as being at least as troubled as cycling.

However, for the moment the downside of the French authorities’ vigilance is clearly starting to outweigh the benefits. All these positive tests should be increasing the credibility of cycling as a sport – it is unarguably the right thing to do if we want to see a ‘clean’ sport – but it certainly doesn’t feel that way at the moment.

The cycling ship is sinking before our very eyes. But surely this – no matter how painful the repercussions in the medium-term – is better than living in a state of blissful ignorance? I want my sporting heroes to be just that: genuine heroes. I just hope that cycling does not pay the ultimate price for being at the forefront of the movement to catch the charlatans.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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