Saunier-Duval dismisses Ricco, Piepoli from team

ROME -- Italian rider Riccardo Ricco was fired by Saunier-Duval for testing positive for the banned blood-booster EPO during the Tour de France.

The Saunier-Duval team said in a statement that it felt it had been a "victim" of irresponsible behavior and denied any involvement in any doping practices.

French judicial officials filed preliminary doping-related charges Friday against Ricco, citing "use of a toxic substance." Antoine Leroy, French state prosecutor for the town of Foix, said Ricco contested the claim that he had used EPO.

Ricco, who won two Tour de France stages, is the latest among three cyclists involved in doping cases at the Tour. He tested positive after the fourth stage, a time trial in Cholet.

Saunier-Duval also fired Leonardo Piepoli, an Italian who won the 10th stage, for "violation of the team's ethical code." The team declined to elaborate.

A police search of a hotel room where Ricco had stayed turned up medical equipment, such as syringes, catheters and medical bags, but no doping products, Leroy said.

Ricco, the Giro d'Italia runner-up, won the sixth and ninth stages. He was the biggest name among the three riders who have tested positive for EPO during this year's Tour.

He was held overnight by police and released under judicial watch Friday after French officials filed preliminary charges against him. He was ordered not to speak to anyone from his team.

"I slept in jail and then the magistrate listened to all I had to say," Ricco told Italy's RAI state TV. "Then they searched my bag but they didn't find anything except the usual vitamins we all use, so they decided to send me home."

Ricco said he would see his lawyer Saturday and was not surprised by the team's decision to fire him.

"It's the routine for the teams," he said. "That's what they have to do. I'll be back. I'll be back stronger than before."

The head of France's anti-doping agency, Pierre Bordry, said Ricco had tested positive for CERA (continuous erythropoietin receptor activator), an advanced version of EPO.

Mircera, the brand name for CERA, which is manufactured by Swiss-based Roche Holdings, helps users produce more red blood cells, company spokeswoman Claudia Schmitt said. It received U.S. and European approvals last year as a treatment for anemia caused by kidney failure. The substance remains much longer in the body than regular EPO.

Schmitt said Roche has provided information about the treatment to the World Anti-Doping Agency, which has banned EPO for athletes. Roche wants the drug used by patients only, she said.

Spanish riders Moises Duenas Nevado and Manuel Beltran were also ejected from the Tour this year for using EPO.

Bordry said Piepoli was one of several riders targeted because he had suspicious blood parameters in pre-Tour blood tests July 4 and 5 and because of "information from outside sources." Bordry would not elaborate on those sources, saying only that he was awaiting test results on Piepoli and other riders.

A French law took effect this month that makes anyone who produces, transports, acquires or possesses doping products liable for up to five years in prison and a $119,000 fine.

This marks the first time athletes who take drugs can be liable in the justice system. Previously, possession of a doping product was not illegal.

Some critics said the law was too tough, and athletes should be punished with sports sanctions, not legal sanctions.

Team executive Mauro Gianetti expressed "surprise and bitterness" at the news that Ricco had tested positive, and said he was sorry to "have been deceived and trusting those who didn't deserve it."

He said the team has always monitored its athletes.

"Despite all of our efforts -- trusting the effectiveness of internal and external tests -- we haven't been able to avoid this absurd situation and today, as a team, we feel like victims," Gianetti said.

Gianetti said he knew of no failed test by Piepoli but was
unhappy with the rider's answers when questioned.

"I did not manage to obtain convincing answers from him and
I no longer want to have doubts," he told Italy's Rai
television. "If I have made a mistake I will
pay the consequences. We have not received any communication about a positive
test by Piepoli. I did not get a positive feeling to have the
same faith in him I had a few days ago."

Piepoli has not commented.

The team said such behavior put at risk sponsors' investments worth millions of dollars. Saunier-Duval had already withdrawn from the Tour de France and suspended all of its activities after Ricco tested positive.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.