- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

“Please, don’t give up on us.”

This may not be easy. This, after all, is the Tour de France.

Cavendish, a British sprint specialist on Team Columbia, captured the 13th stage Friday - the fourth stage he has won and second in a row. He prevailed over a 113-mile course on a hot and wind-swept day along the Mediterranean while Cadel Evans of Australia kept the yellow jersey.

The drug use that is battering cycling’s image yet again is starting to weigh on the riders’ minds. But for Italy’s Riccardo Ricco, who tested positive for the blood booster EPO, the consequences could be far more than psychological.

French authorities filed preliminary charges against him Friday. He could face two years in prison if convicted on charges of using toxic substances, a French prosecutor said.

Ricco, who won two stages of this Tour, was fired from his Saunier Duval team Friday, a day after he was kicked out of the race. He is the third rider to be ousted.

After his release from police custody, Ricco made no clear denials. Instead, he defiantly said he wasn’t surprised by the team’s decision to fire him.

“It’s the routine for the teams,” Ricco told Italy’s RAI state TV. “That’s what they have to do. I’ll be back. I’ll be back stronger than before.”

Ricco’s teammate Leonardo Piepoli, who won the 10th stage, was also fired for “violation of the team’s ethical code.” A Saunier Duval spokesman declined to elaborate.

In any case, this was not something Cavendish cared to discuss.

“I’ve just won the stage, and I’ve just heard about that,” Cavendish said. “On another day, I don’t want somebody else to overshadow my victory again. So, please, no questions on that.”

Evans said he cracked jokes with his closest rival, Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, during the ride Thursday after the Ricco bust. The Australian leads Schleck by one second.

“We’re rivals, but in a race like this… everyone needs friends,” Evans said.

Christian Vande Velde of the United States is third, 38 seconds behind. Other riders Evans needs to watch: Denis Menchov of Russia is fifth, 57 seconds back, and Carlos Sastre of Spain is sixth and trails by 1:28.

The race heads for another mostly flat stage Saturday, a trip of more than 116 miles from Nimes to Digne-les-Bains. Then come three grueling stages in the Alps starting Sunday. The race ends July 27 in Paris.

Few are certain the Tour will be doping free between now and then, and these days virtually no competitor is entirely above suspicion. Spanish riders Moises Duenas Nevado and Manuel Beltran were also ejected from the Tour this year for using EPO.

“I hope we’re not going to find any more,” said Pierre Bordry, the head of the French anti-doping agency that has been conducting the drug tests.

Ricco, this year’s Giro d’Italia runner-up, was ordered not to speak to anyone from his team. Antoine Leroy, state prosecutor in the town of Foix, said Ricco had contested the claim that he had used EPO.

A police search of a hotel room where the rider had stayed turned up medical equipment like syringes, catheters and medical bags - but no doping products, Leroy said.

Bordry said that Ricco had tested positive for CERA, or continuous erythropoietin receptor activator, an advanced version of EPO.

Mircera, the brand name for CERA made by Swiss-based Roche Holdings, helps users produce more red blood cells, company spokeswoman Claudia Schmitt said. It received U.S. and European approvals last year as a treatment for anemia caused by kidney failure. The substance remains much longer in the body than regular EPO.

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