Tour de France Winner Caught in Doping Scandal
NEAL COHEN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News.
The government of Israel said today it would not expand its 16-day-old offensive in Lebanon one day after the Israeli forces suffered their bloodiest day in the battle against Hezbollah. Nine soldiers were killed yesterday, two dozen were wounded in two Lebanese towns near Israel's northern border.
Meanwhile, Lebanon continued its attacks against Israel - Hezbollah rather - firing dozens of rockets into the northern part of the country. And President Bush today sharply criticized Iran's role in that crisis, saying it was time for the world to confront this danger. The president also said he wanted to see an end to the violence as quickly as possible.
You can hear details on those stories, and, of course, much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
Tomorrow it's SCIENCE FRIDAY, and guest host Joe Palca will be here with a look of the materials and techniques behind big construction projects, including a look at the Big Dig's problems up in Boston. Plus, touring the solar system. That's all tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.
In a few minutes, sabotage and terror attacks in New York City. The story of World War I sabotage. But right now, doping and the Tour de France.
A week ago, Floyd Landis cycled his heart out to win the grueling 17th stage of the Tour, moving up from 11th place to 3rd in what many called the single greatest day of cycling in the Tour's history. On Sunday, Landis rolled into Paris and into the history books, becoming the third American to win the epic race.
But now, the triumph is in question. Today his team, Phonak, announced that Landis tested positive for unusual levels of testosterone in that 17th mountain stage where he staged the big comeback.
For more on this story, we go to Charles Pelkey, the editor of Velonews.com, and he's with us from the studios of member station KUWR in Laramie, Wyoming. Nice to have you back on the show.
Mr. CHARLES PELKEY (Editor, Velonews.com): Thank you. Good afternoon.
CONAN: What did the test find?
Mr. PELKEY: Well, it's the initial test of the A sample that shows a testosterone, epitestosterone level in excess of six. And off the record sources have told me that the number is 11, which is significantly higher. The odd thing about that, though, is that it's not an elevated testosterone level. Apparently, it's a lower than normal epitestosterone level. So it could be almost anything.
CONAN: Could be almost anything. And when you say sample A, that presumes there's a sample B, and I know that Landis has requested another test.
Mr. PELKEY: Indeed. It's a standard insurance. When a rider provides a sample after winning a stage or being the top three of the stage or being one of the randomly chosen riders, they take that sample, divide it in two, test the first part - and if comes back positive, they confirm that test with a second test.
CONAN: Now you talked about this epitestosterone finding. Could that be from some sort of natural cause? And we know that Landis - one of the heroic qualities of his victory - he has a seriously necrotic hip and needs surgery after the race. Could he be taking pain medication? Might that be the result?
Mr. PELKEY: Well, he's getting a cortisone injection, and that was one theory. There's an interesting theory. One of the heroic elements of stage 17 is, in fact, goes back to Stage 16 when he was in the yellow jersey but collapsed in terms of performance on the final climb on Stage 16. He lost nearly 10 minutes on that climb alone, and then came back the next day to ride.
That evening, after Stage 16, he and his team director, John Lelangue, went out and had a beer. And this morning, I've been doing quite a bit of reading on that and alcohol's influence on testosterone and epitestosterone levels. And it's a real gray area. I mean, this is not one those binary tests where it's either positive or negative. The whole testosterone/epitestosterone test is a ratio of a hormone and its metabolite.
CONAN: So if you're above a certain number, though, is it presumed that you cheated?
Mr. PELKEY: There is an assumption. I mean, the number, the ratio of six is a fairly high number anyway. And there's an assumption that there's an artificial source of testosterone. Is that necessarily proof? At this point, no, because the B sample hasn't been tested. And then there have been very many successful challenges to that very ratio test, and we just have to walk the thing through the system. You know, after the test, if it comes back positive, is the opportunity to appeal, and that could take several months and then it will get appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. So it could be eight or nine months before we actually know the real outcome of this case.
CONAN: In the past couple of days, Landis withdrew from some appearances, including some races. Some speculation started when he did that there might have been a problem with doping results from the Tour de France, but couldn't he also have been tired? Could his hip have hurt?
Mr. PELKEY: Oh, absolutely. And that was the initial justification given for his absence. But, you know, these post-Tour criterions, which are more a public relations parade than anything else - he attended one on Wednesday, or on Tuesday, and then left two of them, one on Wednesday and one today.
Those are events with appearance fees - substantial appearance fees, sometimes upwards of $100,000. So it's, you know, it would've been a strange reason to back out of one, and that was really why the speculation started.
CONAN: Now this race this year started with a doping scandal. Some of the biggest names in the sport were forced to withdraw after suspect results were announced, and now it ends with one too. I mean, as bad as this may be for Floyd Landis, this seems terrible for bicycle racing in general and for the Tour de France in particular.
Mr. PELKEY: Yeah, absolutely. Cycling has taken a big hit in the last few months. I mean, the reasons those top names were eliminated from the Tour de France in the first place wasn't because they had turned in positive test results, it was because cycling adheres to a strict ethics code, and I know that sounds unusual given all the doping.
But I mean, in a sense it's a necessary response to it. Cycling has a stricter ethics code than almost any other sport, and the absence of Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich from this year's Tour were a direct result of the pro tour ethics code, which says that a rider, even under investigation, can't participate in an event until his name has been cleared.
If you applied that same standard to baseball, for example, I don't think we would've seen any homeruns from Barry Bonds this year.
CONAN: If these results are upheld through testing, through appeals, and whatnot, Mr. Landis would lose the title. What would happen? Who would be declared the winner?
Mr. PELKEY: Oscar Pereiro, who would probably be deemed the luckiest Tour winner in the history of the sport. I mean, he lost thirty minutes going into the Pyrenees, the first mountain stages of the Pyrenees. He then went on a long break when Floyd Landis was in the yellow jersey and gained back half an hour simply because it was a strategic move on the part of the Phonak team to let him go because he wasn't going to be a major threat in the Alps.
Landis had the collapse, Pereiro moved back into the yellow jersey, and then Landis fought back to third place that following day and then regained, for the final time, the yellow jersey on the penultimate stage, the time trial. And Pereiro, who was 30 minutes out of first place, may suddenly find himself holding the jersey.
The Tour of Spain, the Vuelta Espana, last year had the same result. Roberto Heras tested positive for EPO and was negated, and that was handed off to Denis Menchov from the Rabobank team.
CONAN: And let me finally ask you, there have been fresh questions, as I'm sure you know, raised about the American racer Lance Armstrong, who won seven consecutive Tours de France, including last year. Are there going to be further questions about his right to those victories in the Tours?
Mr. PELKEY: Well, certainly not as a result of this. I mean, there was a story and an investigation last year regarding test samples from the 1999 Tour. They apparently tested positive for EPO. But there were no B-samples to confirm those tests, and there have been subsequent investigations which have cleared his name.
So at this point I don't think there are any pending investigations, but it, you know, as you can tell, this has been an ongoing problem in the sport for a long time. I mean, Lance Armstrong came into the Tour de France, that string of Tour de France victories, on the heels of another drug scandal. And cycling has made a serious effort to clean itself up, but obviously we have a lot more work to do.
CONAN: Charles Pelkey, thanks very much for your time.
Mr. PELKEY: Thank you.
CONAN: Charles Pelkey, editor of velonews.com, who joined us today from member station KUWR in Laramie, Wyoming. And when we come back it's the story of the attack on Black Tom Island.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.