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French anti-doping authorities and Saunier Duval team officials confirmed Thursday that Italian climbing sensation Ricardo Riccò (Saunier Duval) has tested positive for a new form of the blood booster erythropoietin (EPO).
Informed of the positive just an hour before the start of Thursday’s 12th stage of the Tour de France, Riccò was taken by gendarmes to a local police station for questioning. Within minutes of Riccò’s departure, his entire team voluntarily withdrew from the Tour.
Saunier Duval director Joxean Fernandez told reporters that it made no sense for the team to continue.
“It’s our decision to leave the race. Riccò wasn’t just any rider. He was our leader and we cannot carry on as if nothing had happened,” he said. “We just found out 10 minutes ago, so we need to take a cold, hard look at the facts to understand what has happened.”
A new drug
Riccò, winner of two mountain stages and ninth in the overall standings, provided a urine sample following the stage 4 time trial at Cholet, which contained metabolites of a new substance, CERA (Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator).
Developed by Swiss pharmaceutical giant F. Hoffman-La Roche, the drug is marketed under the brand name Micera. Soon available in Europe, the sale and distribution of Micera in the United States has been the subject of a long court battle between Roche and Amgen, the company that originally developed recombinant erythropoietin – originally marketed as EPOGEN – in the late 1980s.
Like synthetic erythropoietin (rEPO), CERA was developed to as a treatment for the anemia that results from chronic kidney disease. Unlike single injections of rEPO, CERA interacts with erythropoietin receptors and has a longer-lasting effect. Patients who were normally required to inject rEPO three times a week were able to achieve the same results with only one or two injections per month.
Recent rumors in the sport had suggested that some riders were using an undetectable new oxygen-enhancing drug widely thought to be Roche’s Micera. The existence of a test for CERA was not announced, but Riccò’s positive for the substance suggests that it has not escaped the attention of anti-doping officials.
World Anti-Doping Agency spokesman Frédéric Donzé told VeloNews that the Riccò case is proof that “WADA is very much aware of the development of new EPOs and biosimilar EPOs in an expanding market.”
“In the case of Mircera ? CERA ? thanks to the cooperation of the manufacturer of this substance (Roche) and of WADA-accredited laboratories, WADA received the molecule well in advance and was able to develop ways to detect it,” he said. “This case shows the significant work that WADA conducts in anticipating doping trends, including by closely cooperating with pharmaceutical companies at very early stages of the development of molecules or substances for therapeutic purposes to develop detection methods for anti-doping purposes.”
Jonathan Vaughters, manager of the wild-card Garmin-Chipotle team, said he was pleased to see that “testing technology has finally caught up with doping tech.”
“I have always said I thought this was going to be a very clean, but very painful Tour,” said Vaughters, whose team was invited to the Tour due in no small part to its transparent anti-doping program. “I knew that those who doped would stick out like a sore thumb. So far that is proving true.”
The often brash and outspoken Riccò finished second in this year’s Giro d’Italia and won stages six and nine at this year’s Tour de France. He finished Wednesday’s stage 2:29 behind Australian Cadel Evans in the overall standings, putting him in ninth place.
Riccò and his team arrived at the start of stage 12 on Thursday morning, unaware of the results of the Cholet test. As his teammates went to the official sign-in, Riccò and his director were given the news and the 24-year-old team leader stayed in his team truck to confer with doping officials, French gendarmes and his team director.
Moments after his teammates returned from sign-in, Riccò climbed out of his team truck and joined police in a Saunier Duval car for a trip to a local police station for further questioning. The news had spread fast and both vehicles were surrounded by scores of reporters and fans, the latter of which began hissing and booing as the rider made his way to the car.
Fernandez said he and the team were still grappling with the news and said he had no idea what team officials or sponsors would do in response to the positive.
“We are surprised and shocked,” he said. “We just found out 10 minutes ago. We are suspending all activities of the team until we can understand what happened.”
Ricco becomes the third rider to fail a doping test in this year’s race after Spanish riders Moises Duenas (Barloworld) and Manuel Beltran (Liquigas) both tested positive for rEPO.
The location of Riccò’s alleged doping violation carries with it a bit of sad historical significance. It was 10 years ago in Cholet that the Festina scandal reached a crisis with the arrests of team director Bruno Roussel and team doctor Eric Rijkaert on July 15. Later that day, police searched the hotel rooms of the team and the following day, all of Festina’s riders were ejected from the Tour. The scandal eventually led to the 1999 creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which signaled a new hard line on the question of doping in sport.
Cycling, however, continues to struggle with the problem, as this latest example demonstrates.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood contributed to this report