Tour de France winner Floyd Landis was suspended by his team yesterday after a preliminary test result showed he had abnormal hormonal levels on the day of a remarkable ride in the mountains that essentially clinched the race.
Landis last night declared that he broke no rules, and two prominent specialists raised questions about the findings.
Landis's ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in a urine sample exceeded the allowable range under international doping regulations, according to a statement issued by the Switzerland-based Phonak team. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) lowered that standard from 6:1 to 4:1 last year.
Team officials went public with the information the day after the UCI, cycling's governing body, announced that an unnamed rider had an ``adverse analytical finding" during the Tour.
The test will not be considered a formal positive unless it is confirmed by a backup analysis performed on the ``B" urine sample, expected to be completed within a few days. A spike in the level of the top number can be evidence that an athlete used synthetically-produced testosterone.
However, two leading physicians and crusaders in anti-doping circles deplored the release of the damaging information before the second analysis. They added that it would have been nonsensical for Landis to use testosterone as an instant fix.
An elite rider who needed to perform well in a climbing stage as Landis did would be likely to turn to stimulants or blood-boosting techniques such as erythropoietin injections to improve oxygen processing capability, rather than using a strength-building substance like testosterone, they said.
``Something seems a little smelly here," said Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor emeritus of exercise and sport science and nationally recognized expert on steroid use. ``Testosterone is a training drug, not a competition drug. It doesn't act that quickly. It's not going to change your life in a day or a week.
``I feel in an odd position defending any Tour de France rider, but if you wanted to make up eight minutes, you'd blood-dope."
His view was backed by Dr. Gary Wadler of New York University, who helped craft the current WADA code.
``You don't take anabolic steroids in the morning and race in the afternoon," Wadler said. ``It takes many weeks to get benefits from them. There's no good evidence that they enhance the aerobic system, although they do shorten recovery time and make you more aggressive and assertive. This makes no sense pharmaceutically."
In a teleconference with reporters last night, Landis denied taking any prohibited substance. He said he does not yet have an explanation for his test result and acknowledged he will have a hard time convincing onlookers it occurred naturally given cycling's long, troubled doping history.
``All I'm asking for is that I be given a chance to show that I'm innocent," he said. ``Cycling has a traditional way of trying people in the court of public opinion. I can't stop that, but I would like to be considered innocent until proven guilty because that's the way we do things in America."
The 30-year-old Landis said he takes medication for hypothyroidism and has a medical exemption for cortisone injections to alleviate discomfort in his right hip, fractured in a training crash three years ago. He plans to have the joint replaced within two months. He said he does not know if either medication could affect his testosterone levels.
Landis said he had drunk moderate amounts of beer and Jack Daniel's whiskey the night before the test. Elite cyclists generally avoid alcohol during major events, but Landis had just suffered a mortifying meltdown in the Alps. He thought his chances of winning the Tour were slim and was looking for ``a way to get through the night," he said.
Some studies have shown that alcohol consumption can cause fluctuations in what is referred to as the T/E ratio. Other factors that can affect it include extreme stress or fatigue and trauma to the testicles. If a person has a low natural level of epitestosterone, it doesn't take much to cause the ratio to shift -- although major swings in short periods are relatively rare, experts say.
The controversial T/E ratio test has been challenged numerous times. Elite runners Mary Decker Slaney and Dennis Mitchell both appealed positive tests and won arbitrations in the United States, but their suspensions were ultimately upheld by international panels.
Landis became the third American to win the Tour last Sunday, succeeding his former mentor, seven-time champion Lance Armstrong. His victory came at the end of a Tour whose organizers hoped they were finally making progress to clean up the sport's premier event.
``If the [B sample] confirms the first result, anger and sadness will dominate the sentiments of all those who were thrilled by the 2006 Tour de France," race organizers said in a statement released yesterday.
Landis was considered a podium contender even before prerace favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were among nine riders suspended by their teams for links to a Spanish doping scandal. He took the lead twice on the strength of strong time-trial performances and solid climbing before suffering a monumental collapse in Stage 16 in the Alps, dropping from first to 11th place, more than eight minutes back.
The following day, Landis embarked on a seemingly impossible mission to make up the time. He left the peloton in his dust, caught several other breakaway riders, and finished alone and unchallenged in a solo show of force that past five-time champions Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault called the most epic performance in decades. That evening's drug test is the one that indicated Landis's ``unusual" testosterone to epitestosterone level.
Landis would have been tested at least three times before the positive test as the race leader.
For next season, the lead sponsorship of Landis's team was scheduled to switch from Phonak, a Swiss maker of hearing aids, to iShares, the brand that Britain's Barclays Bank plc uses for its exchange-traded funds, investment vehicles that work like mutual funds. iShares has already been a cosponsor of the Phonak team, its logo prominent on the back of Landis's skinsuit as he raced the Tour de France's decisive time trial last weekend.
Members of Landis's inner circle staunchly defended him.
``I believe in this guy 100 percent, and I think it's bogus," said sports physiologist Allen Lim, who has worked with Landis the last two seasons.
Former pro Jonathan Vaughters called Landis a ``victim" of the understandable cynicism that has grown up around a sport long riddled with doping scandals.
``What makes me sick is that we've put up for so long with people crying wolf and then finding out they lied, and now everyone's ready to whack the head off of the next guy who's `positive,' " Vaughters said.
``This is the one time [cycling fans] should hold out hope. This is the rare exception. He'll arbitrate this and he'll win, I guarantee you, but that will take a year, and in the interim we have a Tour de France champion who's completely black."
Globe staff reporter Ross Kerber contributed to this report.