South Devon pro Jeremy Hunt today welcomed the new wave of drug-busting to hit the sport of cycling and insisted that he rides ‘clean'.

Hunt, the 23-year-old Banesto rider from Dartington, is still hoping to clinch his first place in next month's Tour de France at a time when cycling has just been plunged into a new crisis.

The expulsion of race leader Marco Pantani from the Tour Of Italy, after he had failed blood tests, could hardly have come at a worse time - only four weeks before the Tour de France, a scandal-riddled race which Pantani won with a brilliant display of climbing last year.

But Hunt said: ‘‘A lot of other pros won't agree with me, but I think it's great to try and get the sport as clean as possible.

‘‘I've been a pro for the last four years without drugs. I've taken multi-vitamins, iron, stuff like that is fine, but I've never taken anything else.

‘‘If you're earning millions a year, it might be different, but it's not worth it myself. You just go a bit slower.

‘‘It's perfectly possible to ride the Tour de France without drugs, but you might not be able to ride in the front group every day.''

Hunt added: ‘‘Cycling is one of the few sports where there's an entourage of doctors, masseurs and other people around the riders, and everybody is together for several weeks at a time.

‘‘There are drugs in all sports, but for some reason cycling has been picked out.''

In the past, it was stimulants which were on the drug-testers' hit-lists, but the new cloud has been cast by the alleged use of EPO, a drug which increases the number of red blood cells and so improves performance.

But it also has the effect of thickening the blood - a dangerous business itself - and it was that test which Pantani failed in his native Italy last week.

Last year's Tour de France was rocked when several leading teams were hit by police-raids which led to expulsions and withdrawals, and the French authorities in particular have shown no signs of letting up their pressure since then.

Hunt, who rose to the pro ranks from the local Mid-Devon Cycling Club, needs a good season to clinch a new contract with Banesto or another pro team.

He says it's in his interest that as many of his rivals ride ‘clean' as possible.

He has been suffering from niggling back pains and lost a final sprint to Keith Lilley (St. Budeaux CC) in the 91-mile Devon & Cornwall Divisional Championships near Launceston at the weekend.

The pair finished half-a-minute clear of their nearest rivals and Hunt then dropped a heavy hint as to his real intentions in the race when he headed straight off to cover another 40-plus miles on a training ride.

‘‘I need the miles at the moment,'' said Hunt, a past winner of both the junior and senior national road race titles.

‘‘I am due to ride the Tour of Catalonia in a week's time, before returning for the National Championships here, and if I go well in Spain and maybe win a stage or two, there's still a chance that they may pick me for the Tour de France.''

Re-printed by kind permission of the Herald Express newspaper, Torquay Devon.