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Saturday, June 5, 1999 Published at 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK


Pantani: Future 'in doubt'

Police surrounded Pantani as he left his hotel on Saturday

Defending champion Marco Pantani says his future in cycling is in doubt after he was ejected from the Tour of Italy when high levels of hematocrite were found in his body.

The 29-year Italian winner of the 1998 Tour de France was tested by the sport's world governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI) on Saturday.

His level of red blood cells was 52% - above the 50% level legally permitted by the UCI.

[ image: Pantani in the leader's pink jersey earlier in the race]
Pantani in the leader's pink jersey earlier in the race
Anything above that margin suggests the rider may have taken Erythropoietin (EPO), the drug used to artificially boost the red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body.

The UCI uses its blood test as a "health check" and forces any rider who fails it to take a two-week break from racing, but no further action is taken.

There is no foolproof way of checking for EPO and red blood cells can increase naturally, particularly after training at altitude.

This year's Giro d'Italia has been one of the most mountainous in recent history.

Pantani's Mercatone Uno team suggested that dehydration, and his victories on the last two mountain top stage finishes may have increased his hematocrite level.

Pantani had won four stages in this year's Giro and held a 5min 38sec lead over compatriot Paolo Savoldelli going into the penultimate stage.

'Something not quite right'

Pantani said he was well inside the legal limit when checked earlier in the race.

"I feel all sorts of things but words would be too much," he said outside his hotel.

[ image: Pantani: Morale at rock-bottom]
Pantani: Morale at rock-bottom
"I had the (leader's) pink jersey, my hematocrite level was at 46% and I wake up to this surprise.

"I think there's certainly something not quite right."

The 29-year-old added: "I've returned from two big accidents, but this time, morale-wise, we've touched the bottom.

"For the moment I would simply like a little respect and pay tribute to the tifosi (fans)."

Pantani was taken by his Mercatone Uno team boss Giuseppe Martinelli and escorted by a police car to his home in Cesenatico.

As he left his team-mates gave their captain a rousing ovation from the hotel's second floor balcony.

They failed to start Saturday's stage in protest while Savoldelli refused to wear the Giro leader's pink jersey.

'Rules must be followed'

UCI president Hein Verbruggen was unrepetentant at the decision: "Those are the rules and they must be followed.

[ image: Last year's Tour de France was rocked by a drugs scandal]
Last year's Tour de France was rocked by a drugs scandal
"However, this is a brutal blow to cycling because this is the number one man in terms of image in the sport who has been caught."

Fellow competitors were also devastated by the news with former world number one Laurent Jalabert "speechless".

His ONCE team chief, Manolo Saiz, said the consequences for the sport would be disastrous.

"There are people who want to win the big prizes at any price but what can one do?"

Controversy continues

The latest controversy follows last year's Tour de France drugs scandal, during which the Festina team were expelled and others, including Jalabert, pullled out in protest.

There has also been an ongoing row over separate tests carried out by the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) during the Giro.

Pantani, known as the 'Pirate' for his shavenhead, earring and colourful bandanas, had led protests at these procedures.

Three days ago Pantani's team had been one of five Italian outfits to refuse to undergo tests, while earlier in the tour riders had threatened to boycott the race over the issue.

As Saturday's stage made its way through the Dolomites, it was reported that a hundred fans of the former race leader were blocking the finish of the penultimate leg of the race, which ends in Milan on Sunday.

However, the stage continued after the protest dispersed.

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