UCI President Pat McQuaid insists that cycling is winning the war against the dopers and that efforts to combat the cheats, including the biological passport programme, have helped pave the way for a new, cleaner, era for the sport.
Speaking yesterday at the World Championships in Copenhagen, Mr McQuaid highlighted that a total of more than 1,000 doping tests had been conducted at the year’s first two Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.
Those resulted in just one rider, Katusha’s Alexandr Kolobnev, testing positive, during the Tour. Final results from the 537 tests carried out at the Vuelta are still to be confirmed.
"Bit by bit, cycling has been changing from a sport which has a doping culture to a sport which has an anti-doping culture," McQuaid told a press conference, as reported by AFP.
"The UCI is seen as a reference in the fight against doping now,” the 62-year-old Irishman added, saying, “The sport of cycling is seen in many ways as a pioneer in the fight against doping."
The sport has struggled with a series of high-profile doping cases in recent years, including the Festina Affair, which overshadowed the 1998 Tour de France, and Operacion Puerto, which disrupted the build up to the 2006 Tour.
The latter led to a number of big-name riders including former winner Jan Ulllrich being suspended from the race, as well as the withdrawal of the Astana-Wurth team, and its repercussions are still being felt – 2009 Vuelta winner and ex-world number one Alejandro Valverde will return to the peloton next year after serving a ban for his links to the case.
Meanwhile, doping cases involving the two men who have dominated the Tour de France in the post-Festina era continue to drag on.
The first, of course, is the investigation in the United States involving seven-time winner Lance Armstrong and his former US Postal Service team.
The second, equally high-profile, is the much postponed appeal by the UCI and World Anti-doping Agency against the decision of the Spanish cycling federation, the RFEC, to exonerate Alberto Contador of doping charges following his positive test for clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour, which he went on to win, his third overall victory in the race.
That appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, is now due to take place in November, nearly a year and a half after Contador’s positive test.
Despite the negative publicity that those cases generate for the sport, the UCI insists that the biological passport programme, introduced at the start of the 2008 season, is working, with UCI anti-doping manager Francesca Rossi saying that 21,000 tests have been conducted since then.
"As of today, 955 riders are part of our testing pool - compared with 848 last year," explained Rossi who said that the UCI’s focus now was based on targeted testing rather than a blanket approach.
"We are now doing intelligent testing - which does not mean we were stupid. We target the riders we believe need to be more tested than others."
Evidence of that targeted approach was leaked prior to this year’s Tour de France by French sports daily L’Equipe.
The newspaper published an ‘Index Suspicion’ drawn up by the UCI ahead of the 2010 edition of the race that ranked riders on a scale of 1 to 10, with those with the highest scores more liable to be tested.
Contador, the only rider to fail a doping control in the 2010 race, was ranked 5 out of 10, as was Kolobnev – enough to put them in the top 15 per cent or so, but not to see them head the queue for testing.
The biological passport programme does have its critics – just last month, the UCI took the unusual step of issuing a press release to rebut statements made about it by Cervelo co-founder Gerard Vroomen on his blog – but crucially the initiative does have support from CAS.
In March this year, the court imposed a two-year ban on Franco Pellizotti due to irregularities in his biological passport. The Italian had earlier been cleared by his national Olympic committee. The following month, CAS handed a two-year ban in similar circumstances to the Slovenian rider, Tadej Valjavec.
Other riders to have been banned after being targeted for testing as a result of abnormal blood values in their biological passports include 2003 road world champion Igor Astarloa, now retired, plus the former Rabobank and Silence-Lotto rider, Thomas Dekker.
"The strategy we want to undertake in the coming months and years is that the UCI does everything it has to do in anti-doping and catches the cheats when cheats are to be caught and gets them out of the sport," said McQuaid.
"That's the way it should be. We've had big dramas in the past few years but I don't see that continuing in the future," he concluded.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.