NARBONNE, France (Reuters) - The Tour de France lurched into another doping crisis on Thursday when Italian climbing specialist Riccardo Ricco tested positive for the blood-boosting drug EPO.
Following last year’s scandal-hit race, organisers were hoping for a clean event but their hopes were dashed when three riders tested positive for EPO (erythropoietin) in cycling’s blue-riband event.
The 24-year-old Ricco, runner-up in the Giro d’Italia and winner of two stages on the Tour, was tested after the fourth stage. He denied any wrongdoing.
His Saunier Duval team pulled out of the race following the announcement by the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD).
“This is a decision of the team and is not dictated by (Tour organisers) ASO,” Saunier Duval sports director Matxin Fernandez told reporters. “We suspend the activities of the team until we understand what has happened.”
Ricco is the third rider to test positive for EPO on the 2008 Tour after Spaniards Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas Nevado.
Reuters reporters witnessed police arriving at the Saunier Duval team’s bus in southwestern Lavelanet before the start of Thursday’s 12th stage to Narbonne. Ricco then left in a team car escorted by police.
He was arrested three kms from the team bus by the police and taken into custody, French prosecutor Antoine Leroy said.
Leroy added that the team’s car and buses were being searched by the police not far from the Spanish border.
“Riccardo Ricco has been in custody since two p.m. at the gendarmerie of Mirepoix. He is calm for the moment. He will be presented before the investigating judge on Friday and could be put under official investigation,” said Leroy.
Under a two-month-old French law, a rider is liable in criminal law for using and detaining banned substances and not just for trafficking.
Organisers still claimed they were scoring points in the fight against doping.
“We’re getting closer to an acceptable situation. To me this is a message of hope which means that we’re winning the game against doping,” said Patrice Clerc, the president Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO).
“We’re building the foundations for a new professional cycling and we’re closer than ever to achieving it.”
“It shows that the controls are really efficient and that it is harder to get away with it,” Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said.
Ricco, who was ninth overall two minutes and 29 seconds behind leader Cadel Evans of Australia, consequently lost the polka-dot jersey for the race’s best climber.
The jersey went to German Sebastian Lang while Italian Vincenzo Nibali took the white jersey for the best young rider after the 168.5 kms 12th stage, won by Britain’s Mark Cavendish.
He won a mass sprint ahead of France’s Sebastien Chavanel and Belgian Geert Steegmans.
Asked about Ricco’s positive test, Cavendish said: “It proves that the system is working that the cheats are getting caught.”
“But it’s not just in sport, it’s in every aspect of life. I believe in hard work and I love my sport, maybe some don’t have that passion.”
Evans added: “It is very unfair because our sport is trying to do the right thing and it is crucified for doing the right thing.”
“It’s completely shocking,” International Cycling Union (UCI) president Pat McQuaid told Reuters.
“It would strike me now that someone would have advised those guys to take some form of EPO thought to be undetectable because we haven’t caught guys in this fashion for a long time.
“He’s not Spanish but he’s connected to Spain,” added McQuaid, referring to the fact that Saunier Duval are a Spanish team.
Italy’s national team technical director Franco Ballerini said he hoped Ricco would be exonerated.
“I remember that even as a junior he had problems linked to doping and then everything was resolved because it was discovered that the readings were high physiologically,” he told the Dire agency. “I hope it is a physiological reading, otherwise words fail me.”
Duenas Nevado is to be fired immediately from his Barloworld team after his positive test, team manager Claudio Corti said on Thursday.
French prosecutors said on Thursday bags of blood and syringes had been found in Duenas Nevado’s suitcases.
The Tour had been scandal-free until last Friday, when it was announced that Beltran of the Liquigas team had tested positive for EPO after the first stage.
Last year’s Tour was marred by doping scandals.
Overall leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark was kicked out of the race for lying about his training whereabouts and Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping.
His Astana team were asked to leave the race.
Additional reporting by Francois Thomazeau, Clement Guillou, Gilles Le Roc'h, Nicolas Fichot and Mark Meadows in Milan; Editing by John Mehaffey