While the Tour was reeling yesterday from the after-effects of the first positive drugs test of the 2008 event, the 23-year-old Briton Mark Cavendish provided a ray of hope for the sport's future with his second stage win.
Off the bike, Cavendish is one of the strongest anti-doping voices in the peloton, and yesterday the Columbia sprinter was the strongest at Toulouse as well, sprinting over the line well clear of the opposition.
"It was a technical run-in to the finish with lots of road furniture and then a tight right-hander with one kilometre to go but that suited me down to the ground," Cavendish said. "You saw the lead out I got from [team-mate] Gerald [Ciolek] and he managed to hang on for second, so it worked out amazingly well."
If the first Tour win of Cavendish's career, on Wednesday, was of supreme importance for himself and his country's cycling – it was Britain's first success in the race's bunch sprints in over three decades – his second win had major symbolic significance in the sport's fight against doping. The Manxman's Columbia unit are one of three Tour teams – another is the Briton David Millar's Garmin-Chipotle squad – which have introduced rigorous anti-doping policies.
Cavendish was one of the first riders to sign the Anti-Doping Charter drawn up by the UCI, cycling's governing body, last July. His win, then, is a reminder that all is far from lost in the sport's battle against doping and that winning clean is possible. It could not have been more timely, given the wave of pessimism that swept over the race when news broke on Friday that the Spaniard Manuel Beltran had become the first Tour rider of 2008 to fail a doping test. Beltran's positive for the banned drug erythropoietin (EPO) marks a step backwards for the Tour in its struggle to retain credibility after a decade of doping scandals. As is so often the case with doping, Beltran, 37, is a rider close to retirement.
Equally unsurprising is his use of EPO – a red blood cell booster – which has been the drug of choice for the classic cycling doper for the last 10 years. The ensuing police search of his team's hotel rooms was yet another standard feature of drug scandals in the Tour.
Following a two-hour interrogation, Beltran was released at half-past-midnight on Friday claiming, according to police officials, that "he had done nothing wrong". There was a nuance in the Spaniard's words: for the old-school dopers in cycling, taking drugs is "not wrong", even if it is illegal. Time and again, their line of reasoning – one which teams such as Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle are proving to be false – is that drugs are taken as a means of survival in a sport which is excessively hard.
Brushing the evidence under the carpet is another standard policy for cycling cheats. As one of the 12 riders still racing who was present on the scandal-ridden Tour edition of 1998, Beltran was recently asked by an Italian newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, how he viewed the year that the Tour almost ground to a halt under the sheer weight of drugs controversies.
"We're better off forgetting it," was his simple answer. A week later, it became clear why he felt that way.
The French police took a rather different view of Beltran's positive test, particularly as a week yesterday – the day the Tour began – a tough anti-doping law had been given the green light by the French parliament. Under that legislation, Beltran faces a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine of €76,000 (£61,700). It is ironic, then, that the quietly-spoken Andalusian rider, the son of agricultural workers, only turned to professional cycling as a means of escape from backbreaking hours of labour in the olive plantation of Jaen. On top of that, Beltran – whose career as a top climbing team rider spans 14 years, as well as previous allegations of EPO use – was planning to retire this year.
As the rain teemed down on yesterday's start in Figeac, it felt like an appropriate reflection of the Tour's grim mood .
"The weather today is just like the race," Roberto Damiani, the team manager for the leading rider Cadel Evans, said with a very Latin shrug of his shoulders. "But yesterday's [Friday's] problem is not one rider's problem or one team's problem. It's yet another bad message that cycling is going to transmit to the public and the world."
In contrast, Damiani was pleased after the recent Tour of Italy, the sport's second-biggest stage race. "For the first time in years we'd got through it without any difficulties," he said, using a polite euphemism for drug scandals. "Instead, we talked about who'd finished first, or second, or won the teams prize."
As for the Tour, Damiano said he often recalled the keynote speech to managers made before the start in Brest by the Tour's manager, Christian Prudhomme. "He told us we were all in the same boat. But maybe there are other boats out there as well." As for his Silence-Lotto team's chances, Damiani said: "I'm in Prudhomme's boat. We're going all out to win the Tour. But I would prefer to keep my conscience clean and lose it."
Currently second overall, Evans will have his first major opportunity to see off his rivals today in a 224km trek through the Pyrenees. Two key climbs, the 12km Peyresourde and the 13km Aspin, are on the menu.
But it will take much more than one blistering performance by a favourite today to dispel the long shadow caused by Beltran's positive drugs test.Reuse content