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Paris-Nice riders protest Van Impe test

A rash of new anti-doping controls and cycling’s tightening noose around would-be cheaters is ruffling some feathers in the peloton. Riders staged a protest before the start of Sunday’s final stage at Paris-Nice for what they characterized as unfair treatment of Kevin Van Impe, a Belgian rider who was forced to give urine samples for a surprise control Saturday as he was preparing the funeral of his infant son.

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By Andrew Hood

A rash of new anti-doping controls and cycling’s tightening noose around would-be cheaters is ruffling some feathers in the peloton.

Riders staged a protest before the start of Sunday’s final stage at Paris-Nice for what they characterized as unfair treatment of Kevin Van Impe, a Belgian rider who was forced to give urine samples for a surprise control Saturday as he was preparing the funeral of his infant son.

Racers at this week’s Paris-Nice also complained that new, post-stage doping controls that require samples of urine, blood and hair have been taking too long.

“We do everything possible to make this sport transparent. We’re giving our urine, blood and now hair. It’s impossible to do more,” said race winner Davide Rebellin, who was the subject of several controls this week.

“We support the controls, but what I’m worried about is the invasion of privacy. They come to our homes and we are always available. They have to remember that we are people, too, and not gangsters.”

The tension has been ratcheting up all week as France’s national anti-doping agency (AFLD) conducted the post-race controls during Paris-Nice instead of the UCI following the race organizer’s split with cycling’s governing body.

The French authorities have broadened the net to test up to 10 riders a day (double the UCI’s typical selection of five per stage) and have started collecting hair and blood samples, a practice begun last fall in national races.

Riders say the French commissaires have been polite and respectful, but complain tests are taking too long. Some have been forced to wait more than two hours for the extensive extractions of urine, blood and hair samples.

“They were on me right after finishing the stage and demanding that I sign a document that allows them to take my hair samples,” said Robert Gesink (Rabobank), who wore the leader’s jersey after Mont Ventoux. “It’s incredible. I didn’t even have time to catch my breath.”

The stepped-up testing comes as cycling is trying to regain credibility following two scandal-plagued seasons.

There’s a growing sense among the peloton that one more big doping scandal could push the already-teetering sport over the edge.

“There’s no more space for error in our situation. We’re on our last leg. We need new sponsors in the sport, we need a new image in the sport,” Team CSC’s Bobby Julich told VeloNews before Sunday’s start. “ If anything happens, I could see a big, big problem for cycling.”

Most riders are strongly supporting cycling’s increased anti-doping controls, but worry that there doesn’t seem to be any cohesion between testing agencies.

Riders are already required to be available 24 hours a day for controls and the UCI began conducting additional tests for its biological passport, which will help create a data bank with baseline values that anti-doping officials can use to detect blood manipulation and other banned products.

As out-of-competition tests are increased, the sport is grappling with privacy issues and how far testers can go to demand samples.

Julich was picked for anti-doping controls after sprinting to third in Saturday’s stage and said he was surprised when they wanted to collect hair samples.

The technique of profiling hair samples provides authorities with another tool to catch cheats, but its introduction this week at Paris-Nice caught many riders off guard. Officials must collect up to 100 strands of hair, requiring several snips of the scissors.

“Getting scalped was a first for me,” Julich continued. “For the first time of my career after the stage, not only did I have to give urine samples, but also blood and hair. I have never felt so violated in my career. I know we’re making every effort we can, but until it happens to you, you don’t realize the sacrifices we make to make this sport more transparent.”

That sense of intrusion on privacy stepped up a notch this weekend in Belgium when it was reported that Van Impe, a rider on the Quick Step, was forced by authorities to give urine samples when he was at the crematorium dealing with funeral arrangements following his son’s death.

Belgian rider Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) stepped onto the podium before the start of Sunday’s final stage in Nice to complain that riders support doping controls but wanted more respect.

“Perhaps this went too far,” said Gilbert, flanked by Italians Davide Rebellin and Rinaldo Nocentini, the leading pair in the race. “In leaving two or three minutes late we wish to show our support for Van Impe.”

— Agence France Presse contributed to this report.