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'Clean' squads in the hunt at Tour de France

Even as doping scandals plague the race, three teams that disavow drugs are making a strong showing.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 2008

Esprit de corps: Christian Vande Velde of the US trained with teammates Monday in Italy, on a Tour de France rest day.

Christophe Ena/AP


New York

Whatever hope the storied Tour de France had of avoiding doping scandals this year has evaporated, with positive drug tests precipitating the withdrawal of three riders and the dominant Saunier Duval team from Spain.

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But largely lost amid the news of riders' failed drug tests is the fact that many top cyclists on the Tour come from a trio of squeaky-clean squads. Though the teams' aggressive antidoping programs and outspoken stances have drawn some grumbles, many say the model they're pioneering could be the key to restoring cycling's sullied reputation.

"These guys are saying they're white as white.... There's a certain amount of waiting for them to slip up," says veteran cycling correspondent William Fotheringham, who notes that one of squads' managers, Bob Stapleton, was met with smugness when a rider of his tested positive last year. Even so, the team – now known as Team Columbia – has won four stages of the Tour de France this year. "I think the other teams are going to look at that and think, 'There must be something in this. Even so, the team has won four stages of the Tour de France this year. "I think the other teams are going to look at that and think, 'There must be something in this.' " [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the team whose rider tested positive.]

The trio – US-based Team Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle and Danish squad CSC Saxo Bank – have consistently had four riders in the Top 10 overall standings throughout the Tour. CSC led the team standings at the end of Tuesday's racing, and its rider Frank Schleck was wearing the coveted yellow jersey as overall leader.

True, these teams can't positively guarantee that their athletes are clean. But their self-policing method of routing out drugs goes much further than existing doping controls, say antidoping experts.

"I've been watching [Stapleton's team] for years, because they're doing some things that I think have a lot of potential for the future of sport," says Don Catlin, a pioneer of antidoping efforts who ran the Olympic drug-testing labs at the 1984, 1996, and 2002 Games. "[Stapleton] loves the sport, he loves cycling … and he wants to see it ... rebuilt. He's trying to do that."