The tour's descent into shame continues

Floyd Landis of the United States won the 2006 Tour de France, only for a test to reveal a testosterone reading above the legal limit. Landis has continued to protest his innocence through a series of hearings and there is still no official winner.-AP

Vinokourov fell under suspicion before the start of the race when he admitted to working with Michele Ferrari, a controversial Italian doctor closely associated with Lance Armstrong�s record-breaking run of seven consecutive victories in the tour between 1999-2005. By Richard Williams.

The Tour de France, which began with such high hopes when millions turned out to cheer its grand depart in the south of England two and a half weeks ago, was in disarray after an announcement that the pre-race favourite, Alexandr Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, had tested positive for blood doping. He and his eight team mates were immediately withdrawn from the race.

A sample taken from Vinokourov had shown traces of another person's blood of the same type. "Homologous blood doping" has been used in cycling and other sports to raise the count of red cells, thereby increasing resistance to fatigue. The American rider Tyler Hamilton, winner of the gold medal in the time trial at the 2004 Olympic Games, recently served a two-year suspension for the same offence.

Vinokourov's sample was taken as a matter of routine after he had won the 35-mile time trial in Albi, south-west France, by a margin that astonished those who had seen him suffering in the preceding days as a result of a bad crash earlier in the race. Both his knees had been heavily stitched by doctors while the Kazakh's legs were tucked in the riding position, so that he would be able to continue pedalling through the remainder of the 2,230-mile, 21-day event.

Still bandaged, he repeated the performance. Twenty-four hours after indicating what appeared to be terminal distress to TV cameras covering a mountainous stage in the Pyrenees, he soared away from the remainder of the 160-strong field up a series of lung-bursting climbs to win another stage.

His earlier problems - which included a second crash - had dropped him to 23rd place in the overall classification, almost half an hour behind the leader at that stage, but the two stage wins appeared to be an act of pure defiance, earning a powerful accolade from L'Equipe, with a front-page headline that read "Le courage de Vino."

Vinokourov, 33, fell under suspicion before the start of the race when he admitted to working with Michele Ferrari, a controversial Italian doctor closely associated with Lance Armstrong's record-breaking run of seven consecutive victories in the tour between 1999-2005. According to ? Vinokourov, Ferrari was merely his physical trainer. "He has never given me medicines," he said.

There were also claims that he and his colleagues in the Swiss-based Astana team - two fellow Kazakhs, two Spaniards, a Russian, a German, an Italian and a Swiss - had been spotted on a training ride wearing unmarked black kit, rather than their usual turquoise and yellow colours. Suspicions that Vinokourov had been attempting to evade the sport's dope testers were not entirely extinguished by the team's claims that they had merely been trying to avoid the attentions of autograph hunters.

The Astana team's colours are those of the Kazakh flag, their name is that of the country's capital, and they owe their existence to a telephone call made last year by Vinokourov to the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Vinokourov's former team, a Spanish-based outfit, had been abandoned by their sponsor as a result of Operacion Puerto, an investigation by the Spanish police which netted evidence of mass blood-doping among top cyclists and which led to the retirement of Jan Ullrich, a former Tour winner. Nazarbayev invited five of his country's top companies to put up a total of GBP8m to sponsor a new team, which is why the back of Vinokourov's shorts have been carrying an advertisement for Kazakhstan Railways. He and his colleagues have been nicknamed Team Borat - a reminder that, in PR terms, the last couple of years have not been kind to the former Soviet Republic.

Doping has been a feature of the Tour throughout its 104-year history, starting with brandy and cocaine and graduating via the amphetamines that contributed to the death of the British champion Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux in 1967 to the steroids and undetectable human growth hormones of recent years.

In recent months several retired riders have been queuing up to admit the use of illegal stimulants. Now Vinokourov's name will take its place in the list of those inextricably linked with cycling's long descent into shame.

"With a guy of his stature and class, in cycling's current situation, we might as well pack our bags and go home," said David Millar, the 30-year-old British rider who is riding in the Tour and now speaks out against doping after serving his own two-year ban for the use of the performance-enhancing drug EPO.

In the stage winner's press conference, before the result of his earlier dope test had been revealed, Vinokourov attempted to disperse the gathering rumours and told the media: "If I can help to solve the Tour's problems, I'm ready."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007