Katusha team member Antonio Colom has been provisionally suspended after testing positive for the banned substance EPO, amid allegations that a ‘culture of doping’ is prevalent in the sport.
The 31-year-old Spaniard will now face a hearing with the Spanish Cycling Federation and if the allegation is upheld he may miss the Tour de France, beginning on July 4.
The suspension comes after Bernhard Kohl, the Austrian who finished third in last year’s Tour before being tested positively for EPO, told L’Equipe newspaper that in his opinion, any rider who finished in the top 10 of last year’s race was likely to have doped.
Kohl’s allegations will send shockwaves through the sport, particularly those aimed at the International Cycling Union (UCI) and its much-trumpeted biological passport programme.
Kohl, 27, has now retired from the sport, claiming that it is “impossible to win without doping” in international cycling. His remarks contrast with Britain's Mark Cavendish, who two years ago backed a campaign to get ProTour cyclists to sign an anti-doping charter.
"I think I speak on behalf of a young generation which believes it is cool to be clean," said Cavendish, then 22.
"I want to sign this to show that my career will be doping free. I am completely against it."
The interview with Kohl, translated into English and reproduced in The Guardian, saw him admit that he performed illegal blood transfusions during last year's Tour, in which he was crowned King of the Mountains.
He said: "By re-injecting half a litre of blood the blood parameters are not subject to suspect variation. I did not cheat anyone in the peloton, be sure of that – there is like a social organisation [of doping] within the peloton, these things are accepted."
Kohl also criticised the biological passport programme, launched last year but criticised for its lack of progress. He said: “The top riders are so professional in their doping that they know very well they have to keep their blood values stable so as not to be detected. The UCI sent us the values resulting from the controls: we thus referred to those to mark the next ones. In a way, the passport almost helped us."
Passport lead to Colom test
Ironically, it was Colom’s biological passport that led him to be tested out of competition in Madrid on April 2.
In a statement, the UCI said: "This abnormal result is the direct result of a targeted test based on information taken from his blood profile and knowledge of his competition schedule.”
Colom is the second Katusha rider to test positive for EPO in less than a month-and-a-half, following Austria's Christian Pfannberger.
Responding to Kohl’s allegations, Michael Ashenden, one of the UCI's panel of experts charged with overseeing the passports, said: “There is an international focus on the UCI right now because they're seen as the first federation to establish a biological passport. With that comes a lot of pressure to get it right. The delay we're seeing] is to make sure every element is cross checked and verified before the case is brought, to make sure there's nothing that causes a case to be thrown out on a technicality. But I think you'll find in the next weeks there will be announcements."
Ashenden added: "Of course it's possible that riders could find a way around the passport. It would be naive to sit back and think they're not going to try to find a way around it. They've tried to do that every time we've brought in a new test in the past and I expect they'll do that every time we bring in a new test in future.
“But the passport is the best strategy we have; it's not perfect, but it's the best we've got."