By VeloNews Interactive, With wire services

Meirhaeghe at Sea Otter
Meirhaeghe at Sea Otter

Photo: Galen Nathanson – File Photo

Reigning world cross-country champion Filip Meirhaeghe has failed a test for EPO and announced he will retire immediately from racing.

The 33-year-old Belgian won three World Cup races this year and was one of the favorites for the gold medal in the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens, but tested positive for EPO two days before the World Cup at Mont-Ste-Anne, Quebec in late June.

At a press conference on Thursday in Nazareth near Gent in Belgium Meirhaeghe admitted his guilt and said it was time for him to stop racing.

“I wanted to win them all, and in order to succeed I made the wrong decisions along the way,” said a stoic Meirhaeghe. “I made a mistake, but just like everyone else I’m only human.

“I took EPO for the first time in my career seven weeks ago during a training camp in Austria. I absolutely did not want to fail at the Olympics, which was my ultimate goal,” he continued. “As soon as I heard the positive result I knew it was the end of my career.”

Meirhaeghe arrives at a press conference in Nazareth Thursday
Meirhaeghe arrives at a press conference in Nazareth Thursday

Photo: AFP

News of his positive EPO test has sent shockwaves through the cycling world.

“Filip was the man who made mountain biking big in Belgium,” said the country’s national mountain-bike coach Rudy De Bie. “It’s not only bad news for Belgian cycling, but for sport in general. In Belgium Filip stood on a pedestal. He was and is the ambassador of his sport. I can’t understand it really. This could have disastrous long-term consequences for the sport.”

Meirhaeghe’s test comes on the heels of failed tests by Belgian Olympic road race hopeful Dave Bruylandts (EPO) and Christophe Brandt (methadone). In 1997, Meirhaeghe was not allowed to start the world mountain bike championships in Switzerland after testing for high hematocrit levels.

His positive test also deals a major blow to American-bike manufacturer Specialized, Meirhaeghe’s longtime team sponsor. At a press launch last weekend in Santa Cruz, California, Meirhaeghe’s likeness could be seen on everything from giant posters to stickers to their product catalog. He also played a major role in developing the company’s cross-country racing line. This week Specialized is meeting with hundreds of national and international dealers to show off their 2005 products.

According to a press release on the Specialized Web site, Meirhaeghe called the company’s headquarters on Wednesday to inform them that he had tested positive and announce his retirement.

“Filip is a great person and an exceptional athlete who exercised exceptionally poor judgment,” said Specialized founder Mike Sinyard. “It truly saddens me to see his accomplishments diminished this way. I believe that as a person, he is fundamentally above such things, but [he] made a grave mistake.”

Sinyard added that Specialized’s policy with its athletes is “zero tolerance. If you cheat, you’re fired.”

Through six World Cup races this year Meirhaeghe had affirmed his status as Olympic gold medal favorite, winning three times to put him atop the overall series standing with just September’s World Cup finals left on the series calendar. The Belgian’s 11 career World Cup wins is second only to Swiss legend Thomas Frischknecht on the all time list.

But assuming that the UCI will strip Meirhaeghe of at least his win at Mont-Ste-Anne, Swiss rider Christoph Sauser will take over the overall series lead and get credit for a World Cup win after originally finishing second in Quebec.

This summer would have been Meirhaeghe’s second shot at Olympic glory. Back in 2000 he fought gamely before a dropped chain forced him to settle for the silver behind Frenchman Miguel Martinez.

After Meirhaeghe’s latest World Cup win, in Calgary, Alberta over the July 4 weekend, he told VeloNews that he considered himself the man to beat at the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens. “Yes, I think I am the favorite,” he said, “and I do not mind that”

But that status did not come without a cost. In cycling-mad Belgium, Meirhaeghe said he was one of his country’s few hopes for Olympic gold in any sport.

“Everybody is counting on me,” he said in Calgary. “Wherever I go in Belgium all people want to talk about is gold.”

That won’t be a problem any more.

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