The winner of the 2006 Tour de France - the American cyclist Floyd Landis - has tested positive for a banned drug, throwing the future of one of the world's greatest sporting events into confusion.
According to preliminary test results published yesterday, Landis, 31, had illegally high levels of the male hormone testosterone in his body after a stunning uphill solo ride to win the 17th stage of the 2006 Tour at Morzine in the French Alps last Thursday.
A second, control, sample will now be analysed. If the result is confirmed, Landis will be the first Tour winner to test positive for banned drugs in the 102-year history of the race. He will be stripped of his title and suspended.
Landis insisted last night that he was innocent of injecting testosterone or using a testosterone patch. In an interview with the website of the American magazine Sports Illustrated, he was asked if he had cheated, and responded: "No, come on, man." However, he admitted that he "can't be hopeful" that the second sample would find a different result. "I'm a realist," he was reported as saying.
Commentators in France yesterday were asking whether the Tour could survive such a scandal at least in its present form. Commercial sponsors have already begun to express doubts in private after a series of other drugs scandals including the expulsion of the two favourites just before the 2006 race began.
The 2007 race is due to start in London next July.
The Tour organisers and the sport's world body, the UCI, had been congratulating themselves on what they insisted was the "cleanest" Tour in years. Although stunned by yesterday's findings, race officials said that, at least, they showed the rules worked; It was no longer possible to cheat and win.
After repeated drugs scandals, and repeated protestations of cleanliness in the past 10 years, the public and race sponsors may reach other conclusions.
Landis's Phonak team said yesterday it was notified by the UCI on Wednesday that the rider's sample showed "an unusual level of testosterone/epitestosterone" after stage 17 of the race.
On that day, Landis, a popular and jovial figure, made an extraordinary comeback after almost collapsing on another Alpine stage the previous day and losing the leader's yellow jersey. On the gruelling mountain stage to Morzine, he dashed far ahead of the rest of the field to claim third place in the overall standings. He regained the yellow jersey two days later and won the race in Paris on Sunday after a successful individual race against the clock the previous day.
Landis had continued the American stranglehold on the Tour following seven wins in a row by the Texan, Lance Armstrong. Despite repeated allegations, Armstrong has never tested positive for illegal drugs.
Landis rode in the Tour despite a degenerative hip condition that will require surgery in the next few months.
His mother, Arlene Landis, speaking from the family farm in Pennsylvania, said that she would not blame her son if he was taking medicine for pain from his injured hip. "If it's something worse than that, then he doesn't deserve to win... I didn't talk to him since that hit the fan," she said. "But I'm keeping things even keel until I know what the facts are. I am not going to jump to conclusions."
Under the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) regulations, a ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone greater than 4:1 is considered to be a positive result. The threshold was recently lowered from 6:1. The natural ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in humans is 1:1. Testosterone is included as an anabolic steroid on Wada's list of banned substances, and its use can be punished by a two-year ban.
The credibility of road-race cycling has been repeatedly hit by drugs scandals. Nine riders, including two favourites, were kicked out of this year's pre-race line up after police raids in Spain found the names of 56 riders in the files of a sports doctor accused of prescribing banned substances.Reuse content