Cycling: Tour escapes vampire's bite

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THE OPENING day dawned peacefully on the embattled Tour de France as all 180 riders survived visits from the "vampires". Like it or not, the medical team which tests the haematocrit level of riders has been so labelled by their victims in this drugs-weary sport.

Their all-clear blew away any doubts an hour before the opening time trial began at Le Puy du Fou chateau in the Vendee farmlands. Their early- morning calls were limited to random tests until last year's Tour doping scandal. Now the regulation has been re-written for the three major tours.

All competitors have to submit to a blood sampling before a pedal is turned, and if anyone has more than a 50 per cent level of red cells, they are laid off for 15 days. In Sicily for the Giro d'Italia, Spain's Javier Ochoa and the Italian Nicola Loda were excluded before the start. That was almost three weeks before a random test registered the Giro leader Marco Pantani two per cent over the limit, and cost the Italian second overall. The random blood-tests were introduced two years ago "for the sake of riders' health", but it was also a safeguard against the illegal usage of synthetic erythropoietin (EPO).

Its ability to regenerate riders' blood, and thereby their recovery, made it a tempting but dangerous agent as it could cause clotting in a healthy person. Synthetic EPO was developed to help anaemia sufferers such as kidney patients, not bring a great sporting spectacle to its knees in shame.

Its usage, admitted by the Festina team boss Bruno Roussel, forced the Tour organisers to evict the Festina team, including the Frenchman Richard Virenque. The Swiss riders Alex Zulle, Armin Meier, and Laurent Dufaux confessed, but for almost a year Virenque has insisted he is innocent.

He was on the Tour list of "undesirables" who were barred from this year's race, until the Union Cycliste Internationale ordered his reinstatement. After a week of turmoil and some embarrassment, the Tour director Jean- Marie Leblanc went jogging with Heinz Verbruggen, the president of the UCI, who five days ago had ordered that Virenque should be in the Tour.

"I am not one to keep a war going," Leblanc said, but on Tuesday he was vehement. "We have been prevented from completing our bid to restore the image of the Tour. It is a failure but not one that we will accept."

The UCI invoked the regulation which states that bans on riders should be announced one month before the race starts. Virenque was shown the door two weeks ago, so he won the right to race. The ruling also allowed the return of Manolo Saiz, the manager of the Spanish team ONCE, who was highly critical of the Tour during last year's doping scandal.

Friday's heat, which melted road surfaces leading to the chateau start, was replaced yesterday by overcast skies. Around the 6.8km circuit the fans' signage showed mixed feelings about Virenque. After finishing second and third overall in consecutive years, he became the French darling, but the past year has soured that. A huge cut-out of a hypodermic syringe, with "EPO" and "Virenque" written on it, was matched by an outsized phallus named Virenque.

Britain's Chris Boardman was looking to the heavens for favourable signs. He can blame the weather conditions for two of his painful exits from the Tour. Skidding at high speed has, he says, left him mentally scarred. "My bike handling in the rain is abysmal," he said. In five years he has won three Tour prologues, the opening time trial, but only in 1996 did he go the full distance, which this year is 3,690km.