- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

PARIS | When the Tour de France starts Saturday, some cyclists may as well wear targets on their backs.

Pat McQuaid, the head of the International Cycling Union, says the race will be the most rigorously tested sports event in history. There will be about 520 doping tests, and several of the 180 riders are already in the cross hairs even before the three-week showcase begins in Monaco.

Focusing on suspicious competitors is one of the major innovations at this year’s Tour, which is hoping to repair its battered image. McQuaid says he’s “neither an optimist or a pessimist” that this could be the year without scandals.

“There’s always an idiot out there who will try something,” he said by phone Monday.

In recent weeks, 50 riders likely to compete in the Tour have faced enhanced testing. McQuaid said that includes team leaders, race favorites and an unspecified small number of riders with suspicious profiles.

The list of suspects has been drawn from the UCI’s new biological passport program. In it, riders have provided blood or urine samples compiled in individual body chemistry profiles that officials can compare to their race-day parameters.

Any fluctuations from known baseline levels could possibly signal doping. Officials, in effect, are searching for evidence of doping rather than individual illegal substances. McQuaid calls the passport a “huge deterrent” to cheating.

Levi Leipheimer, an American with the Astana team who has three race victories and four stage wins this year, said the passport suggests “they are tightening the net around doping and dopers.”

“I think that’s a great thing,” he said Monday during a conference call. “Maybe in the future we’ll look back and say it improved from this date.”

Among other new tactics, testers will indicate which riders they want to target as late as 15 minutes before the end of each stage - hoping to catch cheaters off-guard. Testers also will freeze riders’ samples and store them in the hope that if checks are unable to turn up drug use today, maybe some day they will.

As in years past, the stage winner and overall race leader automatically will be tested after each stage, along with six other cyclists.

The designer drug of choice in recent years has been the blood-booster EPO and - increasingly last year - an advanced version called CERA. Doping chiefs are also on the lookout for blood doping, a practice in which riders extract their own blood, store it and inject it when needed.

Such transfusions have been difficult to detect, but the top anti-doping official in France has said he expects a relevant test to be perfected.

Pierre Bordry, the head of France’s anti-doping agency, said in an interview last week that his testers understand blood doping better thanks in part to former rider Bernhard Kohl.

Kohl, who retired last month, finished third at last year’s Tour before being caught using CERA. He has said his doping went undetected despite giving numerous samples.

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