by Justin Davis
AURILLAC, France, July 11, 2008 (AFP) – French police have taken Spanish cyclist Manuel Beltran, of the Liquigas team, away for questioning in the wake of the first doping scandal to emerge at this year’s Tour de France.
Beltran, best known for helping Lance Armstrong to the last three of his seven Tour de France wins, tested positive for the blood booster erythropoietin (EPO) on the Tour’s opening stage according to top anti-doping officials here on Friday.
Liquigas have suspended Beltran while they await the result of a counter-analysis of his positive result, which could lead to his sacking.
Amid scenes reminiscent of last year’s race when Astana team leader Alexandre Vinokourov was thrown off the race for blood doping, Beltran was led away, his head covered, by police after they had conducted a search of his hotel room.
A team spokesman confirmed to AFP: “The police have taken Manuel away for questioning. He was not sharing the room with any other teammates. It was only his room that was searched.”
News of Beltran’s positive test was earlier confirmed to AFP by Pierre Bordry, the chief of the French national anti-doping agency (AFLD) which is carrying out all the controls at the race.
“The rider concerned has been informed of the results of the analysis of the tests we took and has been informed of his rights,” Bordry told AFP.
Bordry said Beltran was targeted for further testing, via a urine sample, after anomalies appeared in a blood sample taken at the start of the July 5-27 race.
He said the presence of EPO was confirmed in the urine sample.
“We took a urine sample from him on Saturday (July 5) because of anomalies in his blood sample. The urine sample tested positive for EPO.”
Liquigas said they have suspended Beltran, but insisted that his case was isolated.
The team are likely to be allowed to remain on the race, if they manage to convince Tour organizers that Beltran’s is an isolated case.
“Our first decision is to suspend Manuel,” said team manager Roberto Amadio.
“He has told us he has done nothing wrong and he wants to have a counter-analysis done, so until then all we can do is to suspend him.
“But if that also tests positive, his contract with the team will be terminated.”
Amadio added: “Our first reaction to this news is one of surprise.
“For us it’s a very bad situation, for the whole team, including the riders who must start the race tomorrow.
“We have an active anti-doping programme in place, so for us if this result is confirmed it is an isolated case.”
Last year the entire Cofidis team left the race when Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone, although the French outfit left willingly despite Moreni admitting he had acted alone.
The Astana team of current Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, who is not racing at the Tour this year, were effectively forced out of last year’s race when Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping.
The news of Beltran’s positive test would be the first of this year’s race, prior to which organisers and anti-doping authorities said they had cranked up the fight against doping following several years of scandals.
As the Tour de France is being held outside the auspices of the International Cycling Union (UCI) this year, the national French anti-doping agency (AFLD) is running all the blood and urine controls.
The AFLD took blood samples from the entire 180-strong peloton at the start of the race. These samples have been analyzed in Lausanne, and also sent to the UCI to form part of their database of profiles for the ‘biological passport’ scheme.
Ironically, the AFLD was forced on Friday to deny a report in Le Monde newspaper which claimed that 10 riders were soon to be informed of anomalies from the pre-race tests.
In a statement the AFLD said it had merely informed the doctors at the teams concerned that some riders “risked health problems” due to deficiencies relating to certain biological parameters.
In a telephone call with AFP, Bordry added: “I cannot say if we have targeted other riders, or whether other riders have been informed.”
A statement from the Tour organizers said: “We have received confirmation from the AFLD that Manuel Beltran has tested positive after the first stage.
“We have noted the decision of Liquigas to exclude Beltran from the Tour de France, in accordance with the contract signed by all race teams.
“We applaud the efficieny of the AFLD but regret that some riders have still not understood that the fight against the dope cheats is being won.”
Beltran began his career in the legendary Mapei team in 1995, but came to wider attention when he joined the US Postal team of seven-time winner Armstrong in 2003.
The 37-year-old helped Armstrong to win the Tour in 2003, 2004 and 2005, the latter while racing with Discovery Channel.
Beltran raced the Tour de France last year with Liquigas and finished 18th overall.