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Spain court orders Operation Puerto blood bags released

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MADRID — A Spanish court ruled Tuesday that blood bags that are key evidence in one of Spain’s worst doping scandals should be handed over to authorities for investigation.

The Madrid Provincial Court said bags containing blood samples and plasma should be handed over to the Spanish Cycling Federation, the World Anti-Doping Agency, the International Cycling Union and Italy’s Olympic Committee.

The announcement came 10 years after Operation Puerto revealed a doping network involving some of the world’s top cyclists when police seized coded blood bags from the Madrid clinic of sports doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.

The decision backed an appeal by lawyers for prosecuting parties against a 2013 court ruling that the bags should be destroyed for privacy reasons.

The court said Thursday’s ruling “took into account that the goal is to fight against doping, which goes against sport’s ethical values.”

Not ordering the bags to be made available would have “generalized the danger of other sports people being tempted to dope themselves and sent a negative social message that the end justifies the means,” the court said.

The 2013 order to destroy the blood bags outraged the sports community. Spain’s anti-doping agency, the International Cycling Union and the World Anti-Doping Agency were among the entities that appealed.

It was not immediately clear how WADA’s statute of limitations would apply in the case. An eight-year statute was in place in 2006 when the scandal first broke, and the period was recently extended to 10 years.

“WADA is very pleased with the decision of the court to release the blood bags,” WADA President Craig Reedie told The Associated Press. “We will now be speaking to the other parties who appealed in the case to decide how to proceed. We have to see what the implications are regarding the statute of limitations.”

More than 50 cyclists were originally linked to the case. Among those eventually suspended were former Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich, Spanish Vuelta champion Alejandro Valverde and Ivan Basso, who later confirmed that his blood was among the frozen samples found.

Fuentes said during a 2013 trial that he also worked with athletes from other sports, but the judge back then said he didn’t have to name anyone who was not implicated in the cycling case.

Speculation has been rife that the release of the bags, which were being kept at a lab in Barcelona, could stir up another scandal if identities of new athletes are revealed.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the court also absolved Fuentes and a former cycling team director who were given suspended sentences in the 2013 trial for endangering public health. The court said the blood samples could not be considered medication.

Spanish athletes and officials also complained that the lack of closure on the case has further damaged the country’s image in the fighting doping.

“Operation Puerto caused horror to our sport and to the image of the country,” Spanish Olympic committee chief Alejandro Blanco said recently. “We’ve been dealing with this for 10 years, and it feels like it could be other 20.”

WADA this year declared Spain “non-compliant” with it global code because it failed to make required law changes on doping. The country was not able to form a government following elections last year, so parliament has not been able to update the country’s anti-doping legislation to match the revised WADA regulations.

WADA followed this up by this month by suspending the accreditation of the Madrid drug-testing lab.

Spain faces fresh elections June 26 but the signs are a new government may not be formed for several months.

Spanish anti-doping agency director Enrique Gomez Bastida welcomed the court ruling after meeting with the country’s top government sports official, Miguel Cardenal.

“We express satisfaction with the decision,” he said. “We are examining it thoroughly in order to evaluate possible joint future actions with the anti-doping organizations involved in the judicial process.”

2019 Tour will honor 1st victory of 5-time champion Merckx

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BRUSSELS (AP) The start of the 2019 Tour de France will be all about honoring Eddy Merckx in his hometown of Brussels.

Merckx, known as “The Cannibal” for his ferocious taste for victory, won the first of his five Tours in 1969. Half a century later, the Belgian great still sees it as one of the major accomplishments for a cyclist generally considered to be the greatest ever.

“I wore the yellow jersey 96 times. It is the best memory of my career. It still gives me goosebumps,” Merckx said during Tuesday’s presentation of the Grand Depart – the opening weekend of the three-week Tour.

Merckx also won a record 34 Tour stages and is among four riders who won the Tour a record five times. French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain are the others.

Tour organizers said it will be the second time the race will set off from the Belgian capital, which hosted the race’s Grand Depart in 1958.

The 2019 race will also mark 100 years since the race leader’s yellow jersey was created.

When it comes to the first two stages on July 6-7, the iconic Wall of Geraardsbergen climb should take center stage.

The 192-kilometer (119-mile) first stage of the Tour will have the Wall, for decades the toughest climb in the Ronde of Flanders classic. The Wall will come early but the stage, which makes a big loop south of Brussels, is still set up for a sprint finish close to the royal palace.

It will also have its stretch of famed Flemish cobblestones and will pass through the hometown of soccer player Eden Hazard.

The second stage will be a 28-kilometer team time trial through the Belgian capital along its wide-open boulevards. The riders will also pass by St. Pieters-Woluwe in suburban Brussels, where Merckx lived as a child and where he got to pull on his first yellow jersey.

From Brussels, it is an easy trek south into nearby France for the rest of the race.

Peter Sagan wins prelude to Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Three-time world road racing champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia made an outstanding start to the 2018 cycling season Sunday when he won the People’s Choice Classic, a prelude to the first World Tour event of the season, the Tour Down Under.

Sagan beat star sprinters Andre Greipel of Germany and Caleb Ewan of Australia in a bunch sprint to win the 50.6 kilometer (31.4 mile) race over 22 laps of a street course in central Adelaide.

The win means Sagan will wear the tour leader’s ocher jersey in the first stage of the six stage Tour Down Under on Tuesday. Sunday’s race does not count toward general classification.

Ewan won the race in each of the past two years and Greipel is the only three-time winner. The 132-strong field that lined up for the race Sunday included seven former winners.