The Tour de France had anything but a relaxing rest day after officials announced that two riders, the Slovenian Martin Hvastija, of the Alessio-Bianchi team, and Saeco's Italian rider Stefano Casagranda, were to be excluded from the race because of their implication in anti-doping investigations in Italy.
A visibly tense race director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, marched into the press room here late yesterday afternoon to tell the media that "half an hour ago, we informed their team managers that these riders could not be present at the start on Tuesday. We cannot let riders suspected of doping pollute our race."
His decision was based on the arrival of a fax from the Italian police in Padua to the Tour's Paris offices on Saturday, confirming that the two riders were still under investigation for alleged infringement of the country's anti-doping laws.
Right down to his choice of the press room to break the news, Leblanc's announcement had unpleasantly similar echoes of his statement six years ago on the Tour that the entire Festina squad had been expelled for organised doping.
On this occasion they were equally merciless: "We are taking the fight against doping to the absolute limit," Leblanc said. "Our solutions are getting tougher, because over the last two years there have been cases like the [Jesus] Manzano affair in Spain, and the [Phillipe] Gaumont affair in France. We do not want the serenity of the competition disrupted by their presence in the race."
The Tour's decision to contact the Italian police came after the French newspaper Le Monde revealed last week that Hvastija is suspected of having used corticoids, while Casagranda is under investigation for consumption of EPO, a drug which crops up with relentless frequency in doping affairs in cycling. The two cases date back to the 2001 Tour of Italy, when 200 police descended on the race in San Remo.
Before this year's Tour, the organisers had already stated that no rider involved in a doping investigation would be accepted into the race. David Millar and Cedric Vasseur, both charged in the Cofidis scandal, were not allowed to start the Tour while Casagranda's team-mate and compatriot Danilo Di Luca, implicated in another case, was told to go home before the prologue in Liège after a long argument with Leblanc, announcing that he would take the Tour to court for defamation.
But so far, those riders who have tried to use conventional justice to get round the Tour's new policy have not been successful. Cedric Vasseur of the Cofidis team lost an appeal against the Tour a few days before the start after he became another "non-desirable" when he was placed under formal investigation for infringement of anti-doping laws in France.
Leblanc explained: "There is an article in the regulations of the UCI [cycling's governing body] which states that we can exclude any rider that is negative for the image of a race. And they supported us back in 1998, too."
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling WeeklyReuse content