Cycling: Virenque faces doping charge

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The Independent Online
RICHARD VIRENQUE, the four-time King of the Mountains in the Tour de France, has been charged by a magistrate with breaking France's anti- doping laws.

Patrick Keil, the magistrate in charge of the inquiry launched after the Festina team masseur Willy Voet was found with a boot load of drugs en route to the start of last year's Tour de France, informed Virenque by letter that he was being charged.

The 28-year-old lead cyclist in the Festina team last season is accused with knowingly using and administering doping products and complicity to import, hold, transfer, supply and acquire poisonous and prohibited substances. Virenque, who now rides for the Italian Polti team, has persistently denied ever taking banned substances, declaring that official tests that appeared to contradict him were false.

Voet, who was later dismissed by Festina, claimed Virenque took up to 100 injections of the banned drug EPO every year. He accused both Virenque and team-mate Pascal Herve, who has also denied any drug-taking, of being liars and being the biggest consumers of doping products. EPO boosts the oxygen content in the blood and thus can boost endurance.

The investigators' report, compiled following blood tests, urine and hair tests, stated that: "The riders took EPO exogenously, meaning the hormone was given to them externally."

Doubts still remain as to whether all the riders were fully aware of what they were taking.

The four Spanish teams who staged a walk-out during last year's Tour de France - Banesto, ONCE, Vitalicio and Kelme - have returned to France this week for the Criterium International race.

It is the first time ONCE and Banesto have raced in France since the Tour de France last year, when police raided team hotels and an ONCE doctor was placed under investigation on doping charges.

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