Cycling: Virenque set for tough battle

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The Independent Online
RICHARD VIRENQUE, the French cyclist, faces a fight against "overwhelming conclusions" to clear his name in the wake of this year's Tour de France drug scandal.

The Festina rider claimed that dope tests had cleared him of all suspicion after he had heard the results of an initial report from Patrick Keil, the French magistrate investigating the scandal, on Tuesday.

Yet police and legal sources who had access to the report handed to judge Keil by two Parisian doping experts insisted its conclusions were "overwhelming".

"All of the nine Festina riders took doping substances ranging from steroids, corticoids, growth hormone, erythropoietin (EPO) and, for four of them, amphetamines," police sources said.

Virenque, once his country's most popular rider, who was tested with his team-mates after Festina were kicked out of the Tour on drug charges, said exactly the opposite. "All the biological parameters and tests prove scientifically that I'm not doped," he insisted.

Only when judge Keil has completed his investigation will it be known exactly whether Virenque took illegal products. His inquiry will take months, and he is forbidden by law to divulge any element of it.

Virenque has been linked with the Swiss team Tag-Heuer and Italy's Mapei, or he could remain with Festina, but a deal will depend largely on whether he is innocent of the charges.

The French Cycling Federation said it was waiting for Keil's investigation to be completed. It may not punish Virenque - from what has been leaked of the drug test report, the rider's haematocrit level, which is used to detect the taking of EPO, is below that authorised by cycling authorities.