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Wednesday, 28 June, 2000, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
A war still to be won
A syringe
EPO is injected to give a massive boost
The biggest problem to hit cycling in recent years has been the drug EPO, a substance that can boost performance by 15% but which comes with a serious risk of heart failure.

In 1998 the furure surrounding the Festina team's use of Erythropoietin almost derailed the whole sport, never mind its flagship event the Tour de France.

The naturally-occurring hormone is hard to detect, so when a French laboratory claimed to have devised a urine test before this year's race it was hailed as a major breakthrough.


If a test is positive we can say for certain that the cyclist has been blood doping - it's a major breakthrough and gives a fresh impetus in the fight against drugs
Professor Jacques de Ceaurriz

However the 2000 Tour will go ahead without the test after the Union Cycliste International (UCI) refused to sanction it, although urine samples will be frozen for future use.

For opponents of the cheats, the decision was a missed opportunity, while the cynics will accuse the governing body of running scared of another major Tour scandal.

To be fair to the UCI, the sport started to act against EPO in 1997, with a blood test which at least limited its use.

Cycling is not the only sport where EPO abuse occurs, and it can benefit the stamina of any athlete.
A drug tester
Until now there has been no test for EPO

When injected into the body the hormone boosts the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, allowing endurance athletes to keep going for longer.

The UCI's "health checks" resulted in two-week suspensions for any rider found to have a red blood cell count over 50%, even if this had been reached by altitude training.

The governing body's blood-takers were quickly named the riders as "vampires" with their early morning raids on hotel rooms.

But this was nothing compared to the French police's hardline approach after EPO was found in a Festina team car in 1998.


We now have more doping controls than any other sport in the world
Chris Boardman

The authorities moved on the Tour, detaining riders and starting a legal process which is still ongoing.

Since then the nature of the sport has changed, and nobody is quite sure why.

This season has seen some exceptionally close racing, with 30 riders coming into the closing stages of events where once there were less than 10.

The reason could be a reduction of abuse, but might equally be a result of everyone boosting their count just within the 50% limit.
Chris Boardman
Chris Boardman: Retiring and tired of drug talk

The French National Anti-Doping Laboratory, which developed the new test, claims it works because the sugar content of natural and injected EPO s different.

The laboratory's director, Professor Jacques de Ceaurriz told the BBC: "Cyclists should be worried because they won't be able to take EPO in the way they did in the Tour de France in 1998 and 1999.

"If a test is positive we can say for certain that the cyclist has been blood doping.

"It's a major breakthrough and gives a fresh impetus in the fight against drugs."

The test is claimed to work for up to three days after EPO has been used, and although the results take up to 72 hours to be found the lab can analyse 80 samples a week.

The UCI's experts were not convinced by Professor De Ceaurriz and his team, with a panel experts calling for further information before approving the test.


It would be very na´ve to say any sport's ever going to be clean......but it's going to be the cleanest it's ever been
David Millar

The governing body's fear is that a test which is not watertight could land them with huge legal bills.

"These things have to hold up in a court of law," points out British cyclist Chris Boardman.

"These are people's careers and it has to be a very solid thing."

Unlike many of his colleagues, Boardman has gone public with claims of being 100% drug-free.

He is also sick of talking about drugs, and wants cycling to improve its image and take a lead in world sport.

"Cycling is the proving ground for it now," he says. "Hopefully we can lead the way.

"We now have more doping controls than any other sport in the world."
Millar
David Millar says the sport is being cleaned up

Before news of the test's rejection, young compatriot David Millar believed anyone using EPO at the Tour would be "stupid" to take such a risk.

But he knows there are no guarantees, no matter what efforts the authorities take.

"It would be very na´ve to say any sport's ever going to be clean," admitted Millar.

"No matter how many blood or urine tests there'll always be somebody who's one step ahead.

"But it's going to be the cleanest it's ever been."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Chris Boardman
"Let's get the test in as soon as possible"
See also:

25 Jun 00 | Tour de France
28 Jun 00 | Tour de France
28 Jun 00 | Tour de France
28 Jun 00 | Tour de France
28 Jun 00 | Tour de France
Links to more Tour de France stories are at the foot of the page.


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