After the cyclist wearing the yellow jersey in the last two Tours de France had their credentials removed amid a doping scandal, many diagnosed a bleak future for the event and professional cycling. Indeed, cycling had become synonymous with the scourge of performance enhancing drugs in sport.

Unbowed, this year’s Tour took a tougher stance. In a bold move, the Amaury Sport Organisation, part of a French media group which organises various high profile sporting events including the Tour de France, took the event out of the hands of the International Cycling Union (UCI), the governing body of international cycling, and is running it under the auspices of the French Cycling Federation.

Predictably enough, the problem appeared again this year, but without the same impact. Spanish rider Manual Beltran was the first to be arrested and is the fourth former team-mate of Lance Armstrong to test positive to using banned substances. Beltran was sacked by his team, Liquigas, who also recently signed Ivan Basso, who will return from a two year doping ban next year — an unfortunate symmetry.

Then Barloworld rider, Moises Duenas, tested positive, was arrested and subsequently charged by French police. But both Duenas’s and Beltran’s doping stories could be “managed.” Neither were challenging for the overall lead of the race, both were cyclists who had been around for a while, and “bad habits die hard.” But the news wasn’t going to devastate the race.

But then 24-year-old Italian cycling sensation Riccardo Ricco, a two-time stage winner in 2008, was arrested and charged by French police for using a new strain of EPO. He and his Italian team-mate, Leonardo Piepoli, also a stage winner in 2008, were sacked by their team, Saunier Duval. Ricco had modelled himself on Marco Pantani, a rider as well-known for his aggressive hill climbing as his drug use.

Australian rider, Simon Gerrans, who won his first stage of the Tour de France on Sunday, argues that doping punishes clean athletes as well as the dirty. His team, Credit Agricole, is set to sign a new sponsor for 2009, and he writes that his biggest fear is that the new sponsor may walk away from the table due to the latest doping stories.

His fears may not be unfounded. At the weekend, Barloworld announced it would no longer support professional cycling after this year’s Tour, and a former team-mate of alleged drug cheat Duenas, Kenyan born British rider Chris Froome blamed Duenas for selfishly risking “almost 45 people’s jobs.” Saunier Duval has also signalled it may walk away from the sport, even hinting at legal action against team management.

But as argued by commentators like Greg Baum, and incidentally by Cadel Evans, times are changing. Drug testing appears to be working. While riders have been found cheating again this year, it has not overshadowed the cycling. Are fewer riders doping, or is the intrusive testing regime starting to protect events like the Tour de France, and by extension helping to rebuild the cycling?

By this time last year, three riders in the top ten had been removed from the race, including the leader. The criminal sanctions are now real: up to 5 years in prison, and a 75,000 Euro fine. Riccardo Ricco was caught through co-operation between the company manufacturing a drug for the treatment of kidney disease and WADA.

For Cadel Evans, who is favoured by many to win the Tour this year, and for the future of the sport, perhaps the price of vigilance is proving a worthy investment.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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