Cycling’s Dark Era Part 3 2006-2010

After several years whereby a number of riders had been suspended after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, including high profile riders such as Grand Tour contenders David Millar, Tyler Hamilton and Roberto Heras, the cycling world was engulfed in another major doping scandal during the 2006 season.

The Operacion Puerto scandal had began innocently enough when vengeful ex-rider Jesus Manzano voiced to the public the doping practices of his Kelme team, of which the Spanish Dr Eufemiano Fuentes was the team doctor. This prompted an investigation into the allegation by the Spanish Guardia Civil, which led to the arrests in early 2006 of several key players in the organised doping ring including Fuentes.

From here the investigation rocked cycling to it’s core on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France, with numerous contenders for victory being suspended after being implicated in the Puerto investigation. It became clear Fuentes had been working with a large majority of professional riders as it was revealed he was officially linked with 56 cyclists, with numerous others likely to have been associated with Fuentes but not implicated in the investigation. Fuentes also appeared to work with tennis players and footballers, remarking at his trial “If I would talk, the Spanish football team would be stripped of the 2010 World Cup.”

Those sent home included Team CSC team leader and 2006 Giro D’Italia winner Ivan Basso, who was later sacked by the team later on in the year. Three time Tour de France podium finisher Joseba Beloki was also sent home after being implicated, although he was soon cleared by Spanish officials in 2006. Team Telekom leader and 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich was sent home and this investigation effectively ended his illustrious career. Other top line riders implicated included the already suspended Tyler Hamilton, Jorg Jaksche and Alejandro Valverde.

Jan Ullrich was a constant thorn in the side of Lance Armstrong between 2000 and 2005, although Ullrich’s career would end in shame as he was implicated in the Operacion Puerto doping investigation on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France. Photo credit goes to REUTERS and was sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/cycling/lancearmstrong/9604956/Lance-Armstrongs-seven-Tour-de-France-victories-wont-be-re-attributed-to-other-riders-says-Christian-Prudhomme.html

From here the UCI and organisers of the Tour de France were hoping for a scandal free Tour de France as Operacion Puerto dominated the headlines in the build up and first few days of the 2006 Tour. Of the contenders left American Floyd Landis shocked everyone with a phenominal Stage 17 effort to recover almost all of eight minutes he had lost the previous day to Oscar Pereiro.

It was therefore no surprise that in the initial testing after that stage Landis tested positive for abnormally high levels of testosterone, eventually leading to him being fired by his Phonak team  and being stripped of his Tour de France victory a year later. Oscar Pereiro inherited the victory as cycling licked it’s wounds after a disastrous 2006 season.

Landis celebrating his 2006 Tour de France triumph, although a positive drug test would soon be revealed and Landis would be both fired from his Phonak team and stripped of his Tour victory a year later. Photo credit goes to unknown.

2007 was similar to the year before with several doping cases in the build up to the 2007 Tour de France. The 2007 Giro D’Italia winner Danilo Di Luca was under investigation for doping and would later join 2006 Giro winner Ivan Basso in being suspended from cycling.

From here T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz was found to have tested positive for EPO in the build up to the Tour and was soon fired by the T-Mobile team before admitting to using EPO and blood transfusions in the past. From here the next scandal broke when pre-race favourite Alexandre Vinokourov and his Astana team were forced to withdraw from the Tour after it was revealed Vinokourov had tested positive for receiving a blood transfusion before stage 13 individual time trial, a stage he won. Team mate and top 10 contender Andrey Kashechkin later also tested positive for the same offence, leading some to speculate a mix up amongst the team led to each rider being transfused with each other’s blood.

The final and most dramatic scandal of the Tour occurred late on race leader Michael Rasmussen was withdrawn by his Rabobank team after it was revealed the Dane had lied to the team and doping officials by claiming he was in Mexico in June when he was spotted by an Italian cycling journalist training in Italy. This was to avoid being tested before the Tour and therefore led to his dismissal from the race and the team.This left Alberto Contador to claim victory in a hugely tumultous 2007 Tour de France, whereby several high profile doping cases once again battered the credibility of cycling’s greatest race.

Dane Michael Rasmussen celebrates after claiming a stage victory in the 2007 Tour de France, although he would later be removed from the race by his Rabobank team after lying to avoid doping tests before the Tour when only days away from winning the race. Photo credit goes to Peter Dejong and AP.

Thankfully for the UCI and cycling fans 2008 was a quiet year for doping within the pro peloton, although there was still a motley crew who were found to have tested positive during the year. The majority were found to have tested positive during the Tour de France, with many testing positive for MIRCERA, a third generation form of EPO. Of those to have tested the most high profile was stage 10 winner Leonardo Piepoli, although the Liquigas team were also forced to leave the race after one of their riders tested positive for EPO.

It appears that the new anti-doping regulations implement by the UCI have began to make a difference within the peloton, as the new, far more invasive measures leave riders little room to use performance enhancing drugs. Riders now have to give base values for things such as their hematocrit and blood levels, therefore it’s now a lot easier to detect when a rider has enhanced these levels unnaturally through performance enhancing drugs.

Alongside this riders now have to provide quarterly information to the UCI detailing their whereabouts every day and inform the UCI if there whereabouts changes during this period. It has become impossible for riders to successfully dope for a long period of time without being caught, and the public are now finally renewing their faith in cycling.

The last two years of the decade passed relatively free from scandal, although some riders were falling foul of the biological passport initive, leading to mandatory two year suspensions from the sport. Whilst the highly controversial Lance Armstrong returned to cycling in 2009, even his presence wasn’t enough to start a doping scandal, although a later USADA (United States Anti-Doping Association) report made it clear based on their evidence that Armstrong had completed a blood transfusion during the 2009 Tour de France.

From here the only major scandal to hit pro cycling during this period concerned the 2010 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. It later became known after the Tour that Contador had tested positive for a small amount of Clenbuterol, which provides breathing assistance, with Contador claiming to have ingested the drug through contaminated meat he ate during the Tour.

Whilst he protested his innocence and raced on whilst a verdict on whether to suspend him was made, Contador was eventually suspended in 2012 and his results between 2010 and 2012 would be annulled, which meant he would be stripped of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro D’Italia victories.

Alberto Contador celebrates his victory on the 2010 Tour de France podium, although he would later be stripped of this victory. Photo credit goes to Graham Watson and GrahamWatson.com.

In this later period of the first decade of the new millenium, it appears cycling has finally turned a corner with riders no longer being found to have tested positive en masse. Whilst the opening year of this period began with the Operacion Puerto investigation, by 2010 it appeared the cycling community can finally hoist the winners of it’s great races as true winners, instead of seeing them through the eyes of suspicion as to how they won. Despite Contador being found to have tested positive for Clenbuterol in 2010 it appears this was an honest mistake. From here every Tour de France winner since has been free of doping scandal during their victories, something which is both refreshing and much needed within the cycling community, as it looks to recover from a very dark era for cycling and it’s credibility.

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