by Justin Davis
LAVELANET, France, July 17, 2008 (AFP) – Australian Stuart O’Grady has called for dope cheats to be handed life bans following the latest scandal to hit the Tour de France on Thursday.
O’Grady spoke out after Ricardo Ricco, one of Italy’s biggest cycling stars, left the Tour under a cloud after testing positive for the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) on the fourth stage time trial.
The news was confirmed by the French national anti-doping agency shortly before Ricco, a two stage winner, was taken into custody by French police amid scenes of chaos outside his Saunier Duval team bus.
His Spanish team initially took to the start line for the 12th stage from here to Narbonne, but soon announced they had decided to pull out.
Ricco joins Spanish duo Manuel Beltran (Liquigas) and Moises Duenas
(Barloworld) in leaving the race early. Both Spaniards also tested positive for EPO.
O’Grady, riding here for the CSC team of Frank Schleck and Carlos Sastre – both of whom are yellow jersey contenders – was stunned by the news.
“If he’s cheated, then throw him out. There’s nothing else to say,” O’Grady told AFP amid chaotic scenes at the 12th stage start.
“When are people going to realize that this is what puts our sport in jeopardy? How many warning shots are going to be shot over the bow for them to realize?
“As far as I’m concerned they should be hit with a lifetime ban. They can go and pick cherries or do some other job, I don’t care. Just don’t come into cycling if you’re going to cheat.”
Hopes had been high among the race organisers, competing teams and the anti-doping authorities that a new battery of anti-doping measures would deter the cheats this year.
However the third positive test for EPO so far has proved there are still some riders willing to take risks – ten years after the infamous Festina doping affair which almost brought the race to its knees in 1998.
Scotland’s David Millar, who has been regarded as a symbol of the sport’s fight against doping in the wake of serving a two-year ban for admitting to EPO use, said some riders will never learn.
The 31-year-old Garmin team rider, like many involved in the sport, has applauded the fact that today’s tests are now working.
But Millar laments the damage it is doing to the image of a sport which, following years of high-profile doping scandals, is still fighting for its credibility.
“It’s the same as before,” Millar told AFP prior to the stage.
“It’s good riddance, but we’re back to square one. The image of cycling is already in the gutter, but it takes things like this to happen before it gets fixed.”
After his two stage wins Ricco brushed aside reports that his blood parameters had alerted anti-doping controllers to possible drugs use.
Millar added: “When you see things that appear too good to be true, it usually means they are.”
Bouygues Telecom team manager Jean-Rene Bedrnaudeau, who only Thursday morning had been quoted as saying he hoped “Ricco is not taking us all for a ride”, was shocked by the news.
“Here’s yet another rider who has stolen the glory, the results and who has been mocking everybody,” said Bernaudeau.
“Well done to the AFLD (French national anti-doping agency) and all the others who are doing the controls. What’s happened can only be seen as a necessary evil.”
Luxembourg champion Frank Schleck, when told that Ricco was discovered using EPO, said: “It’s not news to me.”
Younger brother Andy Schleck added: “Just send him home. This just shows the tests are working.”