Tour de France Winner’s Team Under Investigation (Again)

Vincenzo Nibali and the Astana team pass the Arc de Triomphe on last stage of the 2014 Tour de France.
Vincenzo Nibali and the Astana team pass the Arc de Triomphe on last stage of the 2014 Tour de France. Jean Catuffe / Getty Images

Race organizers ASO presented the 2015 Tour de France route today, unveiling six summits, a short time trial, and a penultimate stage up the Alpe d'Huez. What they didn't talk about was the fact that just last week, the UCI, cycling's governing body, was launching a doping investigation on last year's Tour-winning team, the Kazakhstan-based Astana. Two riders had just tested positive for Erythropoietin (EPO), a drug made famous by Lance Armstrong. Another turned in a highly suspicious result for an anabolic steroid.

"It's extremely frustrating," says Frankie Andreu, a former Tour de France racer and the first former teammate to testify against Lance Armstrong. "Every time this happens it drags the sport back into the gutter."

The doping investigation set cyclists on the defensive and had fans shaking their heads after a year largely free of drug scandals. The UCI further revealed that its investigation into Astana could ultimately bar defending champion Vinceno Nibali — despite no indications of him doping — from competing in the race. 

The Positive Tests

The trouble started in early September when the UCI announced that 30-year-old Valentin Iglinsky of Astana had been provisionally suspended for failing a drug test performed on August 11. The banned substance, EPO, is a blood-booster that was once widely-used before and during the 90s until it was banned and drug tests were imposed. The team promptly fired the Kazakh and reported that Iglinsky admitted to using banned substances.

To make matters worse, on October 2 the UCI included Iglinsky’s older brother Maxim, also on Astana, on a new list of provisionally suspended riders. The 33-year-old is a former winner of several marquee one-day races, including Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Strade Bianche, failed his own test on August 1. Like his younger brother, the culprit was EPO.

Furthemore, a young rider named Ilya Davidenok returned an Adverse Analytical Finding (a non-negative, but highly suspicious, result) for anabolic androgenic steroids during the Tour de l‘Avenir. Davidenok had won a stage at the seven-day race which is regarded as the Tour de France for riders under 23-years-old. While Davidenok failed the test while racing for the Kazakh National Team, he’s been riding for the amateur wing of Astana’s professional team since 2012 and had started an apprenticeship with the professional squad on August 1.

Davidenok's result forced the UCI to investigate. On October 16, the governing body announced that it has asked its License Commission to conduct a full review of Astana’s management and anti-doping procedures. The License Commission issues, reviews, and in extreme cases, revokes team licenses. If the investigation leads to the suspension of Astana’s license in the top tier of pro cycling, the contract-bound Nibali will miss his chance to defend his Tour title.

Ahead of its review, Astana’s General Manager Alexander Vinokourov makes a potentially fourth liability. The controversial former racer and Armstrong rival served a two-year suspension for blood doping and was charged in Belgium with bribing another rider to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2010.

"The team should be investigated," says Andreu. "Three guys show a possibility of doping culture on that team. Vinokourov has a tarnished image and might not be changing the mindset of riders who think they need to cheat."

Cycling's Image Problem

"It's completely stupid to think you can get away with EPO," says Andreu. "They should be banned for eight years."

At a time when cycling’s public image is in desperate need of makeover, the investigation is particularly troubling. And only adding fuel to suspicions, Nibali's clean Tour de France win (no drug tests indicates otherwise) was the largest margin of victory since 1997.  

While the Astana mess besmirches pro cycling, the drug positives also point to an anti-doping system that may finally be working properly.

"Guys getting nailed as the result of highly targeted and effective testing is good news," says Jonathan Vaughters, general manager of the top-level Garmin-Sharp team and a staunch anti-doping proponent.

Vaughters also points out that the UCI's willingness to investigate the Tour winner's team is a positive sign — something not necessarily true in Armstrong's time.

"This is the type of behavior that would have prevented doping from becoming an issue in the first place," says Vaughters.

Nibali claimed after the Tour that it was indeed improved drug testing that helped him win the race, but with three teammates failing the very drug tests he credits for his success, one can be excused for doubting the veracity of his claims. In the end, all eyes are on Nibali, Astana, and the UCI to see how these cases will be handled, and what if any changes the revelations will inspire.