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A race at two speeds? Doping continues to haunt Tour

Following the expulsion of one rider and the arrest of another, talk of doping at the Tour de France has re-emerged as the doctor of one of France's top teams said the race is still being “contested on two levels.” For Gerard Guillaume, the doctor of the Francaise des Jeux team of Bradley McGee and Baden Cooke, his riders simply can't keep up with a peloton whose speeds have amazed everyone in the first 12 days of the race. The Tour, which American Lance Armstrong is bidding to win for a seventh consecutive time, has so far been raced at a punishing pace, leaving some complaining

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By Justin Davis, Agence France Presse

Following the expulsion of one rider and the arrest of another, talk of doping at the Tour de France has re-emerged as the doctor of one of France’s top teams said the race is still being “contested on two levels.”

For Gerard Guillaume, the doctor of the Francaise des Jeux team of Bradley McGee and Baden Cooke, his riders simply can’t keep up with a peloton whose speeds have amazed everyone in the first 12 days of the race.

The Tour, which American Lance Armstrong is bidding to win for a seventh consecutive time, has so far been raced at a punishing pace, leaving some complaining they are not all racing on the same level.

Although that can partly be explained by the fact the peloton benefited from favorable wind conditions as they raced from west to east in the first 10 days, speeds on the race left many, otherwise good climbers struggling to hang on in the tough Alpine cols.

“At the Dauphine Liberé I had no problems in following the best climbers. At the Tour, I just can’t,” said Frenchman David Moncoutie after he won the 12th stage Thursday – a medium-difficulty climbing day. “It’s like that every year, but all I can say is ‘too bad.'” For Guillaume, there’s only one explanation.

“There’s two Tours de France being raced at the moment. We’re not in the same race as those who are at the front, that’s for sure,” he said in French daily L’Humanite Friday.

“Our best rider for the general classification, Sandy Casar, is already 15 minutes behind.” Cycling has been one of the sports to make the most progress in fighting doping since the 1998 Festina doping scandal almost brought the Tour to its knees.

After years of dubious performances, it was finally revealed that crafty, illicit methods were being used to administer the banned but very effective blood boosting hormone EPO (Erythropoietin).

EPO benefits athletes’ by boosting the red blood cells, thus allowing more oxygen to be pumped into the muscles. The result is that riders can last for much longer and, more importantly on the Tour de France, recuperate quicker.

Even before the 1998 scandal better controls have been introduced, including the UCI blood test to check riders’ hematocrit (red blood cell) levels.

The average hematocrit level for normal healthy adult athletes is around 45. The UCI permits riders to compete with levels up to 50, before declaring them “unfit” to ride and requiring a two-week “rest” break. Some people are born with abnormally high hematocrit levels and the UCI does allow cyclists to prove it with an extensive medical history.

But despite the progress in catching cheats, there are widespread suspicions that new, improved methods are being used to elude the drugs controllers.

EPO was once detectable for up to six days, but now it is suspected that athletes are using micro doses of the drug. It ultimately lets them slip through any drug controls.

“Detecting EPO used to be much easier – there was a five or six day window in which to act. But I think now because of different methods and micro-dosing the window of detection is only 24 hours,” said Guillaume, who also suggested that growth hormones – a test for which is supposedly being used on the Tour this year – could also be widespread.

“The cheats now have got more chance of not getting caught than getting caught,” he added.

The first controversy of the race came a few days ago when Russian Yevgeny Petrov, of Lampre, was thrown off the race after his red blood cell count was over the permitted threshold of 50.

On Tuesday Fassa Bortolo rider Dario Frigo, who had been sacked by his team for doping in the past, was also thrown out.

His expulsion became automatic when he was questioned and held by police after his wife Susanna was caught by customs officers with banned substances in her car, believed to be vials of EPO.

French veteran Didier Rous has in the past admitted to using banned substances when he was with Festina. He suggested Wednesday that cheating on the Tour was evident – and called for it to stop.

“There has to come a time when you say, ‘right that’s enough’,” said Rous, a former national champion who raced with Festina when the team was thrown off the Tour in 1998. “One minute we’re able to keep up with the best, then all of a sudden we’re not. I can’t hold my hands up and say what’s going on at other teams. I’ve got no proof.”