Sastre wins doping-marred Tour de France

PARIS, FRANCE —From the very start to the very finish, doping was along for the ride on the Tour de France.

The final act Sunday was supposed to be a champagne-sipping, idyllic run to the Champs-Elysees for winner Carlos Sastre of Spain. Instead, it was yet another announcement of a positive drug test.

That the bust involved a Kazakh rider who was never in contention didn’t matter. Once again, drugs left their mark at cycling’s premier event.

Until Sunday’s finale, the race had gone 10 days without a doping scandal— three others had already marred the three-week race.

This time, Dmitriy Fofonov tested positive for a “very heavy dose” of heptaminol after Thursday’s 18th stage, said Pierre Bordry, the head of France’s anti-doping agency. Fofonov was immediately fired by his Credit Agricole team. French police said he was detained for questioning.

“These guys are crazy, and the sooner they start learning, the better,” International Cycling Union chief Pat McQuaid said by phone. “You can never rule out at the Tour de France—the biggest event of the year—that these guys are going to take risks.”

Sunday’s doping episode gave the Tour a certain symmetry: Veteran Spanish rider Manuel Beltran tested positive after the first stage.

Bordry said Fofonov was asked whether he had a medical exemption for heptaminol, and he did not provide one. The stimulant is used as a vasodilator that helps relieve bronchial spasms.

“Fofonov said he bought the product on the Internet,” said Roger Legeay, sporting director of Credit Agricole. “He says that it was for cramps, but that he forgot to tell the team doctor.”

Fofonov, known mainly as a strong climber, finished in 19th place in the Tour, 28 minutes, 31 seconds after Sastre.

Word of Fofonov’s failed test came as some teams were still riding farewell laps in the French capital. The announcement compounded the damage of positive tests for the banned blood booster EPO—cycling’s designer drug—by Italy’s Riccardo Ricco and Spaniards Beltran and Moises Duenas Nevado.

Ricco’s Saunier Duval team quit the race and fired him, and the sponsor said it was ending its relationship with pro cycling. Barloworld, a South African conglomerate behind Duenas Nevado’s team, said it would do so as well.

Ricco won the sixth and ninth stages. After his positive test was announced before Stage 12, it looked as if the cheats had been chastened if not deterred.

Tour officials seemed relieved to see cyclists suffer after each day’s ride. It was as if that was a telltale sign they hadn’t relied on pick-me-ups to withstand the ordeal of a trek covering more than 2,175 miles.

This year, because of a long dispute, the Tour said it would not use cycling’s governing body to conduct drugs tests. It gave the job to the French anti-doping agency, contending an outside agency with no ties to the sport would be a more evenhanded arbiter.

Christian Prudhomme, the head of the Tour, insisted there were “a lot of good things” this year: “The faces of the riders, burnt out, exhausted, mouths wide open at the end. … The fight against doping has made enormous progress.”

“The difference between those who cheat and those who chase after them has considerably narrowed,” he said.

Bordry pointed to laboratory proof. From the July 5 start in Brest until the first rest day in Pau 10 days later, blood parameters culled from dozens of anti-doping tests showed fewer anomalies on average, he said.

“That means that either the riders were in better health, or that it’s proof they’re not taking as many substances,” he said.

Better yet for organizers, the race was intensifying after the Ricco bust. As racers began three climbs through the Alps by riding into Italy in the 15th stage, five racers were within 49 seconds of then-leader Frank Schleck of Luxembourg—the last of them Sastre.

That’s when the 33-year-old Spaniard, who now has six top-10 Tour finishes, took over. The climax for him came in the last and most punishing day in the Alps. He won Stage 17 and took the prized yellow jersey from Schleck, his CSC teammate.

Sastre had one final big hurdle: Saturday’s time trial. Australia’s Cadel Evans, known as an ace in the discipline, was seen as a favorite to recover the yellow jersey that he seized in the Pyrenees but had lost to Schleck.

Sastre knew he needed the time trial of his life to hold to a 1:34 lead against the Australian, and he got it. Evans made up only 29 seconds against the Spaniard, paving the way for his victory cruise—champagne in hand—into Paris.

By the finish on the Champs-Elysees, Sastre finished seven seconds behind Evans, giving him a 58-second margin of victory. Bernhard Kohl of Austria finished 1:13 back in third, the second-tightest podium finish in the 105-year-old race.

Sastre crossed arms and butted helmets affectionately with CSC teammate Stuart O’Grady as they crossed the line behind Gert Steegmans of Belgium, who won the 21st and final stage in a sprint. Sastre was then surrounded by his family after getting off his bike.

“It’s very moving,” Sastre said, hugging his two children.

This is the third straight year a Spaniard captured the Tour. Alberto Contador won last year, and Oscar Pereiro inherited the 2006 title lost by American Floyd Landis in a doping scandal.

Sastre grew up in Leganes south of Madrid and became interested in racing at 8 years old when his father opened a cycling school.

“When he was young, we thought that one day he could attempt the Tour de France,” Sastre’s mother, Teresa, told Eurosport television from Spain. She said her son had “sacrificed” for this moment.

Television images showed hundreds of cheering fans pouring into the streets Sunday in the mountain village of El Barraco, where Sastre now has a home.

Sastre began racing in 1997 and has been involved with team managers with questionable doping histories.

In 2000, he made his professional debut with the Once team, which was managed by Manolo Saiz. Saiz was one of five people arrested in 2006 as part of the Operation Puerto doping scandal, and is no longer involved in the sport.

Now, Sastre rides for CSC’s Danish owner Bjarne Riis. Riis stayed home from the 2007 Tour after admitting he used EPO from 1993-98, a span that included his 1996 Tour title.

Aware of the doping cloud over cycling, Sastre put it bluntly after his victory appeared certain Saturday.

“I’m clean,” he said.


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