PARIS — Battered by doping scandals for years, cycling is intensifying its fight against drug cheats yet again with the Tour de France to begin Saturday.
The International Cycling Union and France’s anti-doping agency have buried past antagonisms and will jointly conduct hundreds of blood and urine tests. That’s about the same number as last year, when a urine test on three-time champion Alberto Contador turned up small traces of the banned muscle builder clenbuterol. He has blamed a tainted steak he ate.
Even this week, cycling has been hounded by its doping demons: Belgian authorities detained and questioned two suspects with ties to the BMC Racing and Omega Pharma-Lotto teams — each set to ride in the Tour — over alleged cases of illegal ordering of performance-enhancing hormones.
The UCI, cycling’s governing body, instituted a “No Needle” policy in May that limits when riders can receive injections and prohibits injections of recovery-boosting vitamins, sugars, enzymes and amino acids.
The UCI says injections must be justified by medical science, and most legitimate uses of needles must be reported within 24 hours. UCI officials said its research has suggested that even legitimate use of needles may often put riders on a slippery slope toward doping.
At Tour de France preparations Thursday in the western town of Les Herbiers, Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford praised the “very clear” new policy for helping create “a level playing field where everyone plays by the rules.”
“What I would like to see, I hasten to add, is the enforcement of it,” Brailsford added. “It’s one thing to have a rule, it’s another thing to have an enforcement of that rule.”
And earlier this month, the UCI barred cyclists caught doping from working for a team after their racing careers, a move that in effect banishes culprits from the cycling family. Riders still competing, however, could return to racing even after serving out whatever penalty they might be handed.
“Beyond all the sanctions, in our research, we noticed that possibly the most effective measure is to attack the environment of cycling,” UCI spokesman Enrico Carpani said in Paris last week.
The upshot is that cycling, finally, is getting more believable — thanks to the tightening noose against cheaters. Except for the Contador case, the last two Tours were free of doping cases.
But cycling chiefs, all too aware of the sport’s reputation and history with doping, are still fighting a scourge that has dented television ad revenues and soured untold numbers of fans.
Cycling officials have already broken new ground in anti-doping with innovations like the biological passport — a personalized rundown of blood parameters aimed to catch dopers by watching out for bizarre changes over the longer term. Among others, the sport also uses the Adams “whereabouts” system that requires athletes to be available for doping tests year-round.
A UCI report on the biological passport published in December said that more than 20,000 samples have been collected in the program since its inception in 2008 and more than 850 athletes were included. It also noted a drop to unusual blood readings that could indicate doping.
Some cyclists grumble about the invasiveness of the anti-doping measures. Some, like Britain’s David Millar — caught for doping years ago — insist the steps are necessary to clean up the sport.
But many skeptics maintain that as long as cheaters still believe they can get away with it, they will continue to dope.
Some may try to get more sophisticated, by using micro doses of banned products like the blood booster EPO — one of the most common drugs of choice — to slip under the anti-doping radar. But some analysts question whether there is any benefits to such tactics.
Sport officials and anti-doping authorities say one of the clinchers may be to get authorities involved. France has a unit of the national gendarmerie police force dedicated in part to halting the flow of doping products. And the Belgian cases this week suggest authorities there are on the case.
State prosecutor Johan Lescrauwaet of the Belgian city of Ypres said authorities arrested a part-time assistant for the BMC team over the importation of 195 vials of EPO two years ago.
A judge ordered the conditional release of occasional BMC “soigneur Sven Schoutteten on Thursday, three days after he was detained by police. The EPO vials were discovered in a package intercepted by customs officers at Liege airport in 2009 and later found to be EPO.
BMC President Jim Ochowicz said Schoutteten had worked with the team on two races this year and one in 2010, but he doesn’t believe his riders are “out looking for EPO.” He said the soigneur would no longer work for BMC.
Separately, Lescrauwaet said former rider Wim Vansevenant, who has recently been a team driver for Omega Pharma-Lotto, was questioned and released this week for alleged wrongdoing by ordering a “hormonal product.” The investigation is continuing, he said.
Omega Pharma-Lotto said Wednesday it had severed ties with Vansevenant, who had been expected to drive for the team at the Tour this year.
Belgian newspaper De Standaard reported Wednesday he was accused of ordering banned products intercepted by airport customs agents. He was quoted in the paper as acknowledging having ordered a “food supplement” on the Internet but denying any attempt to buy doping products. The paper said the product was TB-500, which is used to stimulate muscle growth in horses. Lescrauwaet declined to identify the product to The Associated Press.
Other countries, too, have been looking to step up the anti-doping fight.
In Madrid on Wednesday, Spain’s sports minister said his government plans legislation to ban athletes from international competitions if they are part of an ongoing doping scandal. Minister Albert Soler said the move aims to help manage Spain’s “world image” about doping: “In eight years we’ve gone from no vigilance to zero tolerance.”
That followed a new regulation announced last week by Italy’s cycling federation to bar any rider who has been banned for doping for more than six months from wearing the national team jersey or competing in a national championship.
That new rule in Italy, which has become a stalwart country in the fight against doping in cycling, means its star riders like Alessandro Petacchi, Ivan Basso and Danilo Di Luca won’t be able to ride for their country.
Paul Logothetis in Madrid and Jerome Pugmire in Les Herbiers, France, contributed to this report.