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  Sunday, 15 February, 2004, 11:42 GMT
Battle against drug peddlers continues
The world's most famous bike race will begin in Dunkirk under a cloud of controversy.

The police raids on the Giro d'Italia at San Remo on 6 June was another "D-Day" for the sport.

Eerily reminiscent of the raids that transformed the 1998 Tour de France into the Tour de Farce, the raids on the hotel rooms used by 20 teams discovered stimulants, anabolic steroids and corticosteroids, as well as used syringes.

The Festina trial in the aftermath of the 1998 Tour, when three teams were expelled, exposed endemic doping.

But after the sport had washed its dirty laundry in public, it was declared "almost clean" by UCI president Hein Verbruggen,.

A new test for EPO had been introduced, and the hope was that a new generation of riders would escape the doping culture.

But such hopes were shattered when Italy's bright young star Dario Frigo, then second in the Giro, was sacked by his team after illegal drugs were found in his hotel room.

More worrying for the authorities was the Italian press revelation that Hemassit was found in Frigo's room; the first time a blood substitute had been found at major sports event.

Just as the authorities had put in place an EPO test, it was discovered that riders were using the next generation of blood-boosting drugs.

The Giro raid could yet have the same implications as the Tour raid and subsequent Festina trial.

It was long thought that doping was rife in professional cycling (five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx once said that the Tour was not won on sandwiches and mineral water), but the eventual admission of France's top rider Richard Virenque and team masseur Willy Voet confirmed it.

Voet, whose arrest carrying the team's supply of drugs, sparked off the 1998 Tour raids, exposed the drug culture in his best-selling book "Breaking the Chain."

He detailed the use of EPO, hormones, amphetamines, corticoids, steroids, testosterone and cocktails including heroin and cocaine.

He described riders' efforts to avoid detection such as drips in hotel rooms to dilute their blood and the use of catheters to introduce clean urine into the bladder.

Even more telling was Voet's evidence to the Festina trial in Lille.

He said: "There was drug taking in all the teams. What makes we say that? We tried to win the Tour de France for six years by doping and we didn't manage it."

But prior to the latest Giro revelations, two clean Tours and Lance Armstrong's fairytale wins appeared to show that the authorities were winning the battle against doping. Even if Armstrong himself came under scrutiny in the 1999 Tour after using a cream containing a banned corticoid to combat saddle sores.

How then have Tour organisers reacted to the "San Remo blitz"?

Public reaction was restricted to a statement on the official Tour website.

It reads: "The organisers would like to remind all that the battle against doping, however spectacular and whether the police or the legal system be involved, still remains preferable to concealment."

But the hope remains that the Tour is further down the line in their battle against drugs and such measures will not be needed

Indeed, even before the Giro, the Tour organisers had taken steps to clean up its act.

Ethical considerations affected what 21 teams were selected as much as the desire to promote domestic cycling. Marco Pantani, who previously used banned drugs, was excluded, as was the Saeco team, whose leader is Laurent Dufaux, the former Festina rider.

Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc declared: "This is a break with the cycling of one era and opens the way for a new approach and a new state of mind."

As part of a 10-point plan to clean up the Tour, all riders have to sign an ethical charter, team managers and doctors have to give an undertaking not to prescribe banned substances and before the race riders will be lectured on the long-term health consequences of doping.

More practically, the number of daily drug tests will be increased to 10 and the new EPO test will be carried out at the Tour for the first time.

In a tacit admission that different standards now apply, the 2001 Tour will last just 20 days and at 2151 miles is the third shortest in history.

The "Grand Boucle" has been made human.

Links to more Tour de France stories are at the foot of the page.

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