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Has Tour de France become tour de farce?

LA MORT du Tour," read yesterday's front page of the French newspaper Libération above the ghostly silhouette of a racing cyclist. France Soir, meanwhile, gave its front page over to a death notice, confirming the Tour's passing on 25 July, 2007, in Orthez, age 104 years, after a long illness.

The death of the Tour de France: it is the most unambiguous and damning of verdicts on an event which has this week been subjected to a series of doping scandals, culminating on Wednesday night with the ejection of race leader Michael Rasmussen.

Following positive drugs tests earlier this week for the pre-race favourite Alexandre Vinokourov and the Italian Cristian Moreni, the Rasmussen scandal has delivered a potentially mortal blow to an event which has been a feature of French life every July since 1903.

This year's race began under a cloud, with the nominal 2006 winner, Floyd Landis of America, testing positive for testosterone during the race. A year on, and Landis's hearing by the US Anti-Doping Agency is yet to be decided. It meant this year's race started without a reigning champion - and facing a serious battle to regain its credibility as a legitimate sporting contest. As several newspapers and commentators were noting yesterday, it is a battle the Tour appears to be on the brink of losing.

Others, however, are not so sure. This year, despite last year's scandals, the absence of a reigning champion and more doping revelations in the build-up to the Tour, the viewing figures are up.

And by the roadside, the crowds over the first two days - with the "Grand Dpart" in the UK for the first time - were at record levels.

An estimated 1.5 million people watched the prologue time trial in central London, with the figure put at 2.5 million for the next day's stage to Canterbury in Kent.

There has always been the suspicion with the Tour de France that many of the 15 million people who line the roads to watch it pass, and much of the worldwide TV audience of two billion, are not overly concerned by rumours of widespread doping, with many reasoning that the Tour is simply too tough to complete without additional help.

David Millar, the Scot who has served a two-year ban for doping and who is riding this Tour - placing fifth in yesterday's stage - has repented, and is now one of the leaders of a group of professional cyclists calling for the sport to be cleaned up. But he is realistic - and he knows that history has much to answer for.

Miller said: "The irony is that in France, historically, they never had the belief that the sport is clean - they always thought that if you won the Tour, you must be doped. That's the culture."

So

will it survive? Yes - because it is the Tour de France and it has been going since 1903. It is the Tour that people support. This is its uniqueness - it is not about Vinokourov or Rasmussen or Lance Armstrong: the Tour creates the stars, the stars do not make the Tour. The question, then, is how does it recover?

The Tour's current problems are historic. It was conceived as an event that only one man would finish. That was its raison d'etre in 1903. It wasn't long before its riders were looking for a little outside help, and it was perhaps entirely natural that a blind eye was turned.

"When do you use amphetamines?" the great Fausto Coppi was asked in the 1950s. "Only when it's necessary," replied the Italian. And when is it necessary, he was asked. "Most of the time."

Amphetamines were the drug of choice until the late 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s came steroids. When drug testing and penalties were eventually introduced they were laughable: perhaps a 1,000 fine, sometimes a 15-day suspension, more often relegation to last on the stage.

Then, in the late 1980s, along came the banned blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO). This could transform an athlete; if it didn't turn them into winners - and in many cases it could - then it could certainly ease their suffering and make them significantly better at their job, whether that was to win races or to act as a domestique in the service of a leader. By the mid-1990s it had arguably got to the stage - as Graeme Obree has claimed - that if you didn't take EPO, you didn't last very long as a professional cyclist.

If the first stage of beating a problem is to admit you have one, then cycling might be heading in the right direction. It is slow going, but the fact is that the sport is now going through the most extraordinarily painful healing processes. Harsher penalties and ethical charters are all very well, but it needed the teams to have a genuine interest in cleaning up the sport.

The teams are all-powerful - since cycling has no 'gate' money the sport is entirely reliant on the team sponsors. In the past they, like the sport's governing body, the UCI, have turned a blind eye - the bottom line was results. If a rider failed a drugs test they could be dispatched and forgotten about.

No more - the Tour organisers took a hugely positive step this week in ejecting an entire team, Astana, following a positive test by one of its riders. It gives the teams, for the first time, a genuine incentive to take full responsibility for each and every rider.

The Tour organisers deserve credit for a hardline approach that is, in the short term, inflicting huge pain.

Similarly, it was a bold move by Rabobank to sack Rasmussen instead of braving it out to Paris; as it was by Cofidis, who withdrew their team after Cristian Moreni's positive.

Even the UCI is getting its house in order, targeting riders they regard as suspicious and fighting doping in a strategic, intelligent way.

Cycling has been left with no choice: it needs to be at the vanguard in the fight against doping. It is a painful process, and it could take years to heal, but the sport will get there in the end. Vive Le Tour.

• THE current Tour de France doping scandal is the latest to rock the sports world.

• In 1988, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100m gold medal at the Seoul Olympics after he tested positive for anabolic steroids.

• Argentine legend Diego Maradona was banned for 15 months and sent home from the 1994 World Cup when it was discovered he had been using ephedrine.

• The 1998 Tour de France was dubbed the "Tour of Shame" following the doping scandal surrounding the Festina team. Team officials were arrested for possession of EPO, as well as growth hormones, testosterone and amphetamines.

• Irish swimmer Michelle Smith became a triple Olympic champion in 1996. Although she passed all her Olympic tests, Smith was banned for four years following a ruling that she had tampered with a urine sample taken during a random test at her home.

• Cycling once again suffered after the 2006 Tour de France winner, Floyd Landis, tested positive for testosterone. The American, who was sacked by his Phonak team, is awaiting the result of his appeal.

• The legendary Australian leg-spinner, Shane Warne, was sent home from the 2003 Cricket World Cup after he tested positive for a banned diuretic.

Warne initially claimed that he had taken just one Moduretic tablet, saying he was the victim of "anti-doping hysteria", but it emerged he had actually taken two.

The leniency of the one-year ban imposed by the Australian Cricket Board was criticised by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

• In 2003, the England footballer Rio Ferdinand was suspended for eight months and fined 50,000 after being found guilty of failing to take a drug test.

The ban was imposed after the player failed to show at Manchester United's Carrington training ground to give a sample to UK Sport doping officials.

 
 
 

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