By Andrew Hood

Heras tested positive after his strong performance in the stage 20 TT

Heras tested positive after his strong performance in the stage 20 TT

Photo: Graham Watson

Roberto Heras – winner of an unprecedented fourth Vuelta a España crown this September – has been released by his Liberty Seguros team after tests indicated that he had used EPO prior to stage 20 of this year’s Vuelta.

The UCI notified the team on October 27 that Heras, 31, had tested positivefor the banned blood booster EPO in samples given after the Vuelta’s penultimatestage, an individual time trial from Guadalajara to Alcalá de Henares, in which Heras finished second, just two seconds slower than winner Ruben Plaza(Comunidad Valenciana).

“Roberto Heras was released from the team by Active Bay, the society responsible for the management of the Liberty Seguros-Würth team, the same day (Oct. 27) that the team received the communication from the UCI that the rider had given a positive test for EPO,” a team statement read. The team firmly voiced its support that Heras will be proven innocent of charges of doping.

“We are confident that Roberto Heras, just as he’s stated, can prove his innocence,” the statement read. “We reiterate our fight for clean sport.”

Liberty Seguros officials had wanted to keep a lid on the story until a second, B-test is conducted. Under anti-doping protocol, a rider isn’t officially considered positive for a doping offense until both samples reveal a banned substance.

News leaked late Monday evening in Spain, however, prompting the team to issue the short statement.

The results of the counter-analysis might not be known for several weeks, but if a second “B” sample does indeed come back positive, Heras would be permanently fired from the team and face a two-year racing ban and a four-year exclusion from ProTour events. In that case, second-place finisher Denis Menchov (Rabobank) would be awarded the overall victory.

Heras, however, has maintained his innocence and might take solace in the fact that the WADA-endorsed EPO test has recently been successfully challenged by two athletes, including Belgian triathlete RutgerBeke, whose case prompted laboratories to recalibrate international testing methods earlier this fall.

While Heras has never been linked to a doping case during his professional career, his Liberty Seguros team has had a rocky road this season. Two riders were suspended from the team earlier this year after testing for high levels of hematocrit, which indicates – but does not prove – the presence of EPO or other types of blood manipulation.

In May, Portuguese rider Nuno Ribeiro tested with levels above the permitted 50 percent hematocrit ahead of the Giro d’Italia. A month later, Isidro Nozal gave high levels ahead of the Dauphiné Libéré and missed out on the Tour de France, but later raced the Vuelta.

The team also fired team doctor Alberto Garai during the 2005 season.