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Tour de France

Beltrán case casts pall over Tour

One week. That’s all it took before a doping scandal erupted on the 2008 Tour de France. Photos of Spanish veteran Manuel “Triki” Beltrán doing a perp walk as French police hauled him away in handcuffs from the Liquigas team hotel Friday evening pushed the Tour back into the type of headlines the race is trying to avoid. Perhaps it was appropriate that clouds and rain greeted riders in Figeac before the start of the eighth stage as the pall of cycling’s troubled past reared its ugly head after a week of titillating racing seemingly pushed scandals off the headlines.

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Others find optimism in doping scandal

By Andrew Hood

French police take Beltran to headquarters for a <i>discussion</i> about his Tour prep.

French police take Beltran to headquarters for a discussion about his Tour prep.

Photo: AFP

One week. That’s all it took before a doping scandal erupted on the 2008 Tour de France.

Photos of Spanish veteran Manuel “Triki” Beltrán doing a perp walk as French police hauled him away in handcuffs from the Liquigas team hotel Friday evening pushed the Tour back into the type of headlines the race is trying to avoid.

Perhaps it was appropriate that clouds and rain greeted riders in Figeac before the start of the eighth stage as the pall of cycling’s troubled past reared its ugly head after a week of titillating racing seemingly pushed scandals off the headlines.

Reaction Saturday morning in Figeac ranged from indignation to anger to quiet optimism that stricter anti-doping controls are finally putting the brakes on cheats within the peloton.

“This is the pain that comes with paying the price of progress in the sport. It’s a sport that’s in transition,” said Bob Stapleton, general manager at Team Columbia. “There’s a lot of testing going on; there are new rules. When you do a lot of testing, guys are going to get caught.”

Riders heading to the sign-in podium ahead of the start in Figeac were faced with the inevitable questions that come with a doping case. Should Liquigas stay in the race? How does this affect the Tour? Is cycling capable of cleaning up its act?

“We’re fed up. I’m more disappointed than anything. I don’t want to be talking about doping, we’re here to race. We’re not going to change our direction on our team. The Tour is such an intense event, if you lose your concentration, you’re out of the race,” said Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Chipotle. “I’m trying to be positive about it. It shows that the doping controls are working.”

The Beltrán case is the first doping positive from the 2008 edition where the French anti-doping agency (AFLD) is taking responsibility for running post-race, anti-doping controls.

The French authority instituted a new testing protocol that includes testing up to 10 riders per stage as well as taking urine, blood and even hair samples for review.

Beltrán, 37, tested positive for traces of the banned blood booster EPO in urine samples taken in a post-stage control taken after stage 1. The news leaked in the web page of the French daily L’Equipe on Friday evening. French officials quickly confirmed the reports.

Most agree that more doping positives are inevitable with the increased volume of anti-doping controls.

“If you declare a war on doping and you test a zillion times, statistically there are going to be positives. I think people should be happy that the science and testing is actually working. It’s better than nothing happening and then there’s a police raid and they find 5000 bottles of EPO,” said Garmin-Chipotle general manager Jonathan Vaughters. “It’s better that it goes through this direction through the right channels than through the police action. You have to keep on the line. You have to keep on hacking forward. Testing is working, that’s good.”

Stapleton pointed out that roughly 300 tests were conducted in 2006, while more than 3000 this year. Kim Kirchen, the team’s GC rider and current yellow jersey holder, was tested 12 times before the start of the Tour by different agencies.

Officials from AFLD said that a pre-Tour blood screening revealed irregular indicators, prompting a follow-up urine test executed after stage 1.

There’s a growing sense that increased controls are having a chilling effect on dopers.

“When you do more testing, you’re going to catch people. I think people getting caught is part of the solution,” Stapleton continued. “It’s painful, it’s ugly, but the sport is in transition and this is a way to move forward. When people realize there is a lot of testing, that means there’s a higher chance of getting caught. And when you do get caught, you’re going to pay the price. That has to change behavior over time. We’re kind of stuck in the middle of the sport right now. We’re trying to do a lot of the right things

Others were indignant not that a rider tested positive but that the media jumped on the story to bash cycling once again. It was 10 years that the Festina Affaire revealed the depth of doping within cycling and the sport has grappled with how to eradicate doping since then.

David Millar, who confessed to EPO use in 2003 and served a two-year ban, shot back at journalists who queried whether cycling could ever break the doping chain.

“It makes me f*cking pissed off that people are surprised that this is still happening. It’s taken us a decade to get to this point. If everyone’s foolish and naïve enough to think that a rider won’t test positive again, you might as well go home and not cover this race. The media have a responsibility to realize that this isn’t the last ever doping positive we’re ever going to have,” Millar said before the start. “Professional sport, there’s always going to be doping. With doping controls, there’s always going to be positives. What we have to do is handle it in the right way and move on. What we’re doing on this team is the future of the sport. There’s always going to be guys who are doing it in the wrong way, but there are those of us who are doing it in the right way and I think we’re now in the majority. It really it is a minority.”

Beltrán suspended
Beltrán, meanwhile, has been suspended from Liquigas while he waits for the results of the second, B-sample as part of the anti-doping protocol.

“I only hope that people don’t forget my presumption of innocence. There have been other cases when the B-sample comes back negative,” Beltrán told the Spanish wire service, EFE. “I feel sorry for the pain and suffering I’ve caused my teammates. They don’t deserve to be involved in any of this mess.”

The Spanish climber — who joined Liquigas in the 2007 season and was a member of three of Lance Armstrong’s Tour-winner teams at Discovery Channel from 2002-2005 — was at the Liquigas team hotel on Friday evening when the news broke.

French police later hauled Beltrán away in handcuffs for an interrogation because, under French law, doping in sport is considered a crime. He was later released, however, and returned to the team hotel, but didn’t speak with other members of the team.

Despite the media hurricane, Liquigas officials said the team would stay in the race.

“There’s no reason for us to leave. We want to continue in the race to support our young riders,” said team manager Roberto Amadio. “Our first reaction is surprise. Manuel is being suspended and he’s asked for a counter-analysis. If that is positive, his contract will be terminated.”

At the start Saturday, Liquigas’ Manuel Quinziato was defiant.

“We are going to keep in the race, of course. It was an error of one rider. I think it’s awful that the police can take away a rider like that. Remember, he still has a second B-test. Why are we treated like criminals? It’s wrong that a rider is treated like this until the second test is conducted. We should have better protection for the riders.”

Under rules of a pre-race contract that all 20 teams signed with ASO before the start of the Tour, Liquigas will be required to pay a 100,000-euro fine. A second offense by one of its team riders would force the team’s exit from the race.

Amadio said Beltrán’s blood was screened by the team before the Tour and that he passed four out-of-competition controls conducted by the World Anti-Doping Agency since November.

The case, however, casts a shadow of doubt on Liquigas. The team has recently dropped out of the professional team’s association and has refused to renew its ProTour license, tow organizations which have a strong, anti-doping stance.

The team defiantly signed Puerto-banned Italian rider Ivan Basso, who will join the team in 2009 with a two-year contract worth 600,000 euros per year. Basso is serving a two-year ban after he admitted his “intention to dope” with controversial Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. Basso, however, continues to deny that he ever followed through with his plans.