Cycling in dock again
For the third time in four years, Italy's premier cycling race, the Giro d'Italia, was thrown into chaos on Saturday when it was announced that race leader Stefano Garzelli had tested positive for "probenecide", a diuretic and masking agent usually used to hide the presence of anabolic steroids.
Furthermore, Garzelli is just one of six riders on this year's Giro who have been caught up in different doping scandals.
Russian Faat Zakirov of the Panaria-Fiordo team and Roberto Sgambelluri of Marco Pantani's Mercatone team both tested positive for "Nesp" (New Erythroproiesis Stimulating Protein), a type of synthetic EPO, in routine tests on the eve of the opening Prologue in Groningen, Holland 10 days ago.
Furthermore, four other riders - Antonio Varriale, Nicola Chesini, Filippo Perfetto and Domenico Romano, all past or present riders for the Panaria-Fiordo team - have been accused of doping and drug trafficking within the overall ambit of an ongoing judicial investigation handled by the Brescia Public Prosecutor's office.
Varriale, who is not on the Giro, is currently under house arrest whilst Chesini was arrested and briefly detained after Friday's fifth stage into the ski-resort of Limone Piemonte in the Alps.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Romano, currently missing, whilst Perfetto has received judicial notification of his involvement in the investigation.
Inevitably, however, it is the positive dope test of 28-year-old Garzelli, winner of the Giro in 2000, that has most severely damaged cycling's credibility.
Garzelli tested positive following a routine dope test after winning last Monday's second stage from Cologne in Germany to Liege in Belgium. (This year's 85th "EuroGiro" has travelled through the founder member countries of the European Union - France, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg as well as Italy).
Speaking at a Saturday news conference during which he vehemently denied any wrongdoing, Garzelli said that he had at first wanted to quit the race but had been persuaded to hang on in there by his Mapei-Quick Step team-mates and management.
Garzelli must now await the outcome of a second test on a second urine sample given after last Monday's stage into Liege.
If the result of the second test, probably due tomorrow or Wednesday, returns positive then Garzelli will automatically be suspended from the race.
For the time being, under the rules of world cycling's governing body, the Unione Cycliste International (UCI), he is entitled to stay in the race.
In a remarkable development, however, both he and his Mapei team added an element of cloak and dagger to the controversy by alleging that they had been framed.
Mapei manager Aldo Sassi alleged that his entire team had had their food and/or drink "laced" when claiming not only that one of his team riders, Daniele Nardello, had been forced to stop five times in the first hour of the Liege stage to urinate, but also that one of the team physiotherapists had been struck with a mystery kidney attack.
The shock of his positive test clearly knocked Garzelli off his stride later on Saturday's rain-soaked stage from Cuneo in Piedmont into Varazze in Liguria.
Garzelli and his Mapei team showed no interest in chasing a group of early breakaways and he eventually surrendered the race leader's pink jersey to 37-year-old ex-East German rider, Jens Heppner, a man whose normal function is that of team rider for the currently convalescing German champion and 1997 Tour de France winner, Jan Ullrich.
Commenting on the weekend's events, Francesco Moser, former Italian World Champion and current UCI council member, told Italian state TV: "This has now gone beyond all limits.
"As part of the UCI council, we've introduced spot tests that have turned out to be very effective, we've explained everything to the riders and team management.
"Our line is that whoever does something wrong, has to pay for it, we've tried to create a climate of fear.
"If we really wish cycling well, then we've got to respect the rules. Anyone who cheats should be thrown out."
Perhaps more worrying was the comment of Neopolitan rider Varriale, the man at the centre of the Brescia investigation, who reportedly told investigating magistrates last week that he did not know if there was anyone in today's cycling caravan "who does not use drugs".
Meanwhile, Belgian Rik Verbrugghe won yesterday's 159 kilometre seventh stage from Viareggio to Lido di Camaiore on a day that saw German Heppner hold onto his surprise position as race leader. Verbrugghe, second on the opening day's prologue, attacked up the final Colli di Pedona climb to establish a 25 second lead that was good enough to see him hold on from there to the finish, 20 kilometres away.
SEVENTH STAGE, Viareggio to Lido di Camaiore, 159K 1, Rik Verbrugghe (Bel); 2, Raphael Schweda (Ger) at 59; 3, Cristian Moreni (Ita) at 59; 4, Massimiliano Sciandri (Ita) at 1:02; 5, Gianni Faresin (Ita) at 1:02.
OVERALL RACE STANDINGS: 1, Jens Heppner (Ger); 2, Stefano Garzelli (Ita) at 3:33; 3, Vladimir Popovych (Ucr) at 3:43; 4, Pietro Caucchioli (Ita) at 3:45; 5, Eddie Mazzoleni (Ita) at 3:57; 6, Angel Vicioso (Spa) at 4:09; 7, Francesco Casagrande (Ita) at 4:16; 8, Paolo Savoldelli (Ita) at 4:27; 9, Gilberto Simoni (Ita) at 4:33.