Cycling: Stage-winner Astarloza tests positive for EPO

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The Independent Online

The 2009 Tour de France's clean slate for doping scandals was shattered yesterday when it was announced that stage 16 winner Mikel Astarloza had failed a test for the banned blood-booster EPO.

The sport's governing body, the UCI, have said that the Basque rider was found positive in an out-of-competition test carried out on 26 June, a week before the Tour started in Monaco.

Astarloza's team, Euskaltel-Euskadi, insist that the rider is innocent and will wait for the results of testing of his "B" sample before taking any action.

The 29-year-old finished a respectable eleventh this year, but he really only caught the eye with a spectacular stage win in the Alps at Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

On the attack for most of the tough 180-kilometre trek through the mountains, Astarloza finally shook off three other breakaways close to the line.

His victory was a cause for celebration for his squad, ending a six-year drought on Tour stages for his Basque team, and securing only the second win of his eight-year career.

Now, however, Astarloza has the dubious honour of being the first 2009 Tour rider to fail a test for a banned substance. Following a spectacular fall in the number of positives in the Tour – from a final total of seven in 2008 to zero when the race ended in Paris last Sunday – there had been grounds for some optimism that progress was being made in cycling's perennial war against banned drugs.

However, it is far from certain that Astarloza's positive will be the only one from the 2009 Tour, and perhaps even 2008. France's top anti-doping organisation, the AFLD, announced last week that they will be re-testing samples from 15 of the top 20 finishers from last year's race for CERA, an advanced type of EPO.

Astarloza's positive, then, is the umpteenth indication that cycling is far from being out of the woods when it comes to the battle against doping – and more may yet follow in the coming weeks.

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