Race director Christian Prudhomme proclaimed the 2008 Tour de France will eventually be seen as a victory against doping because cyclists were caught cheating.
However, even after some were snared, at least one other still tried to beat the system.
Sunday's glitzy, ceremonial end to the Tour tasted rather like flat Champagne when news of the fourth rider to test positive broke at about the same time Spanish rider Carlos Sastre was sipping from his glass while doing victory laps around the Champs-Elysees.
The day before, Prudhomme proclaimed that in the near future this year's Tour will be seen as the year "when the balance shifted the other way" in the fight against doping.
But the four doping tests revealed &
thus far &
from the 2008 Tour suggest this message has not hit home &
despite Pierre Bordry's French Anti-Doping Agency operating with the kind of ruthless efficiency seldom shown in previous years.
"This Tour for me absolutely shows that this sport has one foot in the future and one foot in the past," said Team Columbia manager Bob Stapleton, adding that "methods and conduct that are not acceptable in sports and not acceptable in cycling" are still prevalent.
Sastre, whose Team CSC boss Bjarne Riis admitted to doping during his 1996 Tour win, became the third Spaniard to win the showcase event, while Cadel Evans of Australia finished 58 seconds behind. For the second straight year Evans has lost the Tour by less than a minute after conceding defeat to Alberto Contador of Spain by 23 seconds in 2007.
"It's very moving," Sastre said, hugging his two children as he savored his win.
While Sastre, Evans and third-place Bernhard Kohl of Austria mounted the podium steps, attentions were drawn elsewhere when it was announced Kazakh rider Dmitriy Fofonov tested positive for the banned stimulant heptaminol after stage 18.
Fofonov, who said he bought the product off the Internet to treat cramps but forgot to tell the team's doctor, was immediately fired by his Credit Agricole team.
Nevertheless, Prudhomme has a case &
the fight against doping is more efficient than ever, and the benefit of the doubt is going away from suspected cheats rather than backing them up like in previous years of angry denials.
Stringent testing and targeting from Bordry's AFLD makes France arguably the leading country in anti-doping controls.
"The difference between those who cheat and those who chase after them has narrowed considerably," Prudhomme said. "I hope that the organizations that are in charge of this fight have the same determination as the AFLD."
That was a clear message to the World Anti-Doping Agency to impose the same testing pressures on other sports that cycling has to contend with, and which ultimately leaves some cyclists feeling disillusioned.
Jimmy Engoulvent, Fofonov's long-standing teammate at Credit Agricole, could barely speak. His bottom lip trembling, his throat tight with emotion, the French rider struggled to hold back tears as he explained the betrayal he felt.
"I am completely demoralized," Engoulvent said. "I have been riding with him for four years. We are professionals &
whether it is EPO or a stimulant, it's the same thing. He should not have taken it."
Before Sunday, three cyclists had already been kicked out for using the banned blood booster EPO &
Italian rider Riccardo Ricco, Manuel Beltran and his fellow Spaniard Moises Duenas Nevado. Ricco's Saunier Duval team quit the Tour and its sponsorship was ended, and Duenas Nevado's Barloworld team will not renew its deal beyond 2009.
EPO was the drug of choice in cycling when it first appeared more than a decade ago. In a stone-faced confession in May 2007, Riis admitted that he used it to win the 1996 Tour and then chose to stay away from the 2007 Tour.
That he is back again to coach Sastre to victory raises questions, especially given recent events.
Toward the end of the July 5-27 Tour, a car driven by the father of CSC riders Frank and Andy Schleck was searched by customs officers. Shortly before that, the team had been subjected to a surprise anti-doping control at their hotel when the race passed through Italy. No banned products were found either time, but the team was regularly tested at post-stage anti-doping controls.
One German newspaper cited unnamed sources as linking Riis and Frank Schleck to a December 2005 visit to the clinic run by Madrid-based doctor Eufemiano Fuentes &
the man at the center of the blood-doping scandal that had rocked cycling in 2006 and led to 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich and 2005 runner-up Ivan Basso &
then Riis' star rider &
being kicked out.
CSC dominated at every level with the kind of clinical efficiency Prudhomme said he loathes to see. He prefers seeing cyclists being "burnt out, exhausted, mouths wide open at the end" as testimony of the hardships they endure.
That was hardly the case with CSC riders. The team won the overall team award, the white jersey as best young rider (Andy Schleck) and the 33-year-old Sastre clinched overall victory two years after placing third.
Riis said the turning point for Sastre's win came "four weeks before the Tour" had started.
"I did some hard work together with him (Sastre) and really planned this," Riis said. "We worked hard in the Alps, trained hard and had a really good talk about things, and I think that was the key moment."
Sastre clinched the Tour by attacking Evans at the foot of L'Alpe d'Huez on stage 17 and then fending him off in the time trial, where he conceded only 29 seconds having been nearly 2:30 slower over the same distance last year.
"I was not able to ride as fast as the others," Evans said, adding that he was exhausted before the time trial.
He also had to contend with recovering from a crash on stage nine and CSC riders attacking him incessantly.
"The fact I had to fight for every second was exhausting," Evans said.
Ricco was the biggest name to get caught doping this year, thrilling fans with his daring solo raids in the Pyrenees and then letting them down when it was announced that his performances were fueled by EPO.
The last two Tours were rocked by doping scandals, making this year's edition the real test for Prudhomme and the Amaury Sport Organization which owns the race and is at loggerheads with the UCI, cycling's governing body.
Astana rider Alexandre Vinokourov was kicked out last year after testing positive for a blood transfusion and his team quit the race. Cofidis also left after Cristian Moreni was caught using testosterone. Iban Mayo, who rode for the Saunier Duval team, tested positive for EPO but the result was announced after the Tour ended.
Prudhomme's decision not to invite Astana back for this year's race meant there was no defending champion because Contador had to stay home.
The showcase event reached arguably its lowest point ever last year when leader Michael Rasmussen was fired by his own Rabobank team just days from the end for lying about his whereabouts when missing pre-Tour anti-doping tests.
Two years ago, Floyd Landis overturned a huge deficit to beat Oscar Pereiro with a solo ride full of the same panache shown by the 24-yearl-old Ricco. Landis was then stripped of the title after a test showed he used synthetic testosterone to fuel his spectacular comeback.
This year, because of a rift between the ASO and the UCI, testing has been done solely by the AFLD.
"The fight against doping has made enormous progress," Prudhomme said.
But while the awe-inspiring rides like Ricco's and Landis' have been shown up as the fairy tales they are, others are still trying to duck under the radar &
despite Prudhomme's best intentions and the AFLD's superior testing.
Whether a clean Tour is ever possible still remains an unanswered question.
Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.
Sastre wraps up doping-scarred Tour de France