Tour de France: Cavendish wins 12th stage

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Mark Cavendish of Britain won the 12th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday, hours after cycling's showcase race was thrown into chaos with a third doping bust this year — netting the biggest name yet.

Cavendish earned his third stage win this year by leading a group sprint after the trek through rolling hills and plains for the 168.5-kilometer (104.7-mile) ride from Lavelanet to Narbonne.

"Every time it's special," said Cavendish.

Cadel Evans of Australia retained the overall leader's yellow jersey, trailing in the main pack. He has a one-second lead over Frank Schleck of Luxembourg and a 38-second lead over American rider Christian Vande Velde.

Cavendish, a Team Columbia rider who had never won a stage before this year, outpaced Sebastien Chavanel of France in second and Gert Steegmans of Belgium in third.

But the race was badly overshadowed by the latest doping case.

Italian rider Riccardo Ricco was detained by police and booed by spectators before the stage began, becoming the third person this year to test positive for performance enhancer EPO — cycling's most famous drug.

Ricco's Saunier-Duval team withdrew from the Tour and suspended all of its activities after news of the rider's test. For the third straight year, the race has been marred by doping.

Ricco, a 24-year-old Italian who won two Tour stages this year, tested positive for the performance enhancer after the fourth stage, a time trial in the western town of Cholet.

Pierre Bordry, the head of the French anti-doping agency, announced the result, leading to the team's withdrawal shortly before the start of the 12th stage.

"It's a team decision not to start the race," Saunier Duval sporting director Matxin Fernandez said. "He's our leader, we can't act as if nothing happened.

"We suspend the activities of the team until we know what happened," Fernandez added.

Ricco was the runner-up in the Giro d'Italia. He won the sixth and ninth stages and was ninth overall before the start of Thursday's stage, 2 minutes, 29 seconds behind Evans.

Ricco had come under suspicion about what he says is his naturally high hematocrit level — the volume of red blood cells. High hematocrit levels can suggest use of EPO, but do not confirm it.

Following his victory in the ninth stage, Ricco said he has had high hematocrit levels "ever since I was little," adding "I hope soon that everybody will stop speaking about that."

Ricco's popularity in Italy rocketed with his two Tour stage wins, even gaining front-page coverage in the football-focused Gazzetta dello Sport.

The rider has said his idol was Marco Pantani — the last Italian to win the Tour, in 1998. Pantani faced doping allegations throughout his career. He died of a cocaine overdose on Valentine's Day in 2004.

The news on Ricco came even as judicial officials continued to question Spanish rider Moises Duenas Nevado, who was expelled from the race on Wednesday after Bordry announced he had tested positive for EPO — like Ricco, after the fourth stage.

Duenas Nevado was detained by police Wednesday in the southwestern town of Tarbes, at a hotel where his Barloworld team was staying. Police also searched his hotel room.

Gerard Aldige, the state prosecutor in Tarbes, told The Associated Press that police found "numerous small medical materials like syringes, needles, and medical drip bags which theoretically a cyclist should not have in his room."

Aldige said Duenas faced preliminary criminal charges for "holding and using poisonous substances or plants" and "prohibited importing of merchandise."

Other substances were also found, including capsules and gels, but that tests will be required to determine their composition, Aldige said. He said one medicine not authorized for sale in France was also found — though he did not elaborate.

Liquigas team rider Manuel Beltran — a former teammate of seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong — was kicked out of the Tour and sent home to Spain on July 11 after he also tested positive for EPO.

Competitors of Ricco expressed dismay at Thursday's revelation.

"It's just amazing. It's irresponsible," British cyclist David Millar said. "This guy does not have any love or care for the sport.

"The unfortunate is that we are learning that things that look too good to be true are too good to be true," Millar added.