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Mt Hood Classic
Photo ©: Swift

Special Edition Cycling News, February 14, 2008

Edited by Laura Weislo

Astana in disbelief over ASO decision as Leipheimer vows to fight back

By Laura Weislo

Astana's riders will have to refocus their season
Photo ©: Jon Devich
(Click for larger image)

The Astana team was given a resounding vote of no confidence on Wednesday when the Tour de France organiser, Amaury Sport Organisation, announced that the team would not be invited to any of the ASO's events. This means its star, Alberto Contador, will not be able to defend his titles in either the Tour or the upcoming Paris-Nice.

The decision was met with shock from the team's manager, Johan Bruyneel, who has been pushing to convince the world that his 2008 squad is completely different from the squad which was forced to exit last year's Tour after Alexander Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping following his win in the stage 13 time trial.

"That the happenings of last year in Tour de France prompted the Tour organizers to leave Astana out of the season's most important race sounds understandable," admitted Bruyneel. "However, Astana Cycling Team 2008 has nothing to do with the team of last year. We have done everything to change the dynamics of the team."

Bruyneel took the general manager position with Astana this year, succeeding Marc Biver, who had taken over the squad after the Liberty Seguros manager Manuel Saiz after Saiz had been arrested in connection with Operación Puerto. When the sponsor pulled out, the Kazakh government stepped in to support its stars Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin, and the team continued as Astana-Würth.

Biver, like Bruyneel, put into place anti-doping measures as well as an ethical charter for the squad, but after both Kashechkin and Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping, and Matthias Kessler for testosterone in 2007, one could say the policies were ineffective.

Bruyneel went further, signing on Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard to administer the same type of program used by Team CSC in 2007, but the ASO was reluctant to believe in the changes until they are proven.

"We remember what happened in 2006," Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme told Reuters. "Then came 2007 with a new team who asked us to trust them. We did that and paid dearly for it."

Bruyneel was incredulous, stating, "We are spending 460,000 euro on internal anti-doping efforts for 2008. What more can we do?" The ASO opened the door to the team participating in future years, saying they "will keep a close eye on Astana's efforts to have a 2008 season free from [doping] affairs or suspicions, and they may be re-admitted in the future," but Bruyneel was not appeased.

"What is strange," Bruyneel continued, "is ASO does not invite us because of the past of a team that had the same name. Many other teams, with a similar suspicious past, that even did not change management or structure, can participate without problems. Where is the consistency? Is Tour the France not losing all credibility now?"

Astana directeur sportif Alain Gallopin was rather resigned, and said he would put his energies into reformulating the team's race schedule. "We cannot force anything. It is probably impossible to appeal against their decision," he stated. "We will prove in other races that we are left home unjustly. It is better to know early than late that we cannot participate. There are still other races on the cycling calendar.

"I am disappointed for Alberto. Now I need to make soon a new programme for the riders and staff and go forward."

American national champion and third place overall in the 2007 Tour, Levi Leipheimer, was also in disbelief, after hearing the news but vowed to fight back. "I am in shock and very disappointed." he said.

"Along with my friends, family and supporters, I can't understand why we are not allowed to take part in the Tour and defend Alberto's title with two other riders capable of winning, myself included. We are all left wondering. I chose this team because it was a very new team, which I've already experienced. I stand by my decision to be part of the new Astana team for 2008. In a supportive manner, the entire team will fight back. The many encouragements I already received today mean a lot to me."

The full list of teams is expected to be named by ASO on February 29.

Paris-Nice invitations indicative of ASO plans for 2008?

By Gerard Knapp

It was actually the announcement of team invitations for the upcoming Paris-Nice stage race, to be held from March 9 - 16, 2008, that included the decision by ASO to not invite Astana to this race, and any other race it's organising in 2008. Astana's roster includes Alberto Contador, the defending champion of the 2007 Paris-Nice as well as the Tour de France.

ASO invited 20 teams to participate in Paris-Nice, and among these are the two American squads, Team High Road and Slipstream - Chipotle. Although High Road is listed as a German team by the ASO, it is actually registered in the USA and it was recently in the headlines as it appears to have missed the selection to the first Grand Tour of the year, the Giro d'Italia.

Earlier this year on February 2, the organisers of the Giro d'Italia, RCS SPort, announced the teams to race in the Giro, and it left out the ProTour teams Astana, High Road, Crédit Agricole and Bouygues Telecom. RCS said its decision was made difficult by a large number of requests for race entries, and it reviewed team histories (with particular regard to doping) as well as if the teams had put in a strong performance in previous editions of Italy's Grand Tour when formulating the invitations.

Of those four teams excluded from the Giro, it would seem that High Road remains in contention - among many other teams - to secure a start in the Tour de France, if ASO's decision on Wednesday is any indication of its preferences. High Road is the team formally known as T-Mobile, which is under new management.

However, in the 2007 Tour de France, a then T-Mobile rider, Patrik Sinkewitz, was expelled from his team and the 2007 Tour de France for returning a positive test for testosterone from an out of competition control in June. Another team invited to Paris-Nice is Rabobank, and this Dutch squad was also at the centre of the major controversy in last year's Tour de France when it sacked the then maillot jaune, Michael Rasmussen, for misleading his team over missed out-of-competition doping control tests.

The full list of teams to compete in the 2008 'race to the sun', Paris-Nice, includes: Quick Step and Silence - Lotto from Belgium, Denmark's Team CSC, Gerolsteiner, High Road and Team Milram from Germany, a host of French teams including Bouygues Telecom, Credit Agricole, Cofidis, Française Des Jeux, AG2R - La Mondiale and Agritubel; Lampre and Liquigas from Italy, Rabobank and Skil-Shimano from The Netherlands; Spain's Caisse d'Epargne, Euskaltel - Euskadi and Saunier Duval - Scott, and finally Slipstream Chipotle from the USA.

Of those 20 teams, three are not top-level ProTour teams, but Professional-Continental squads, Agritubel, Slipstream Chipotle and Skil-Shimano.

Evans more firmly in the frame?

By Gerard Knapp

Cadel Evans
Photo ©: John Veage
(Click for larger image)

The expulsion of Contador and Astana from this year's Tour de France would seemingly place Australian rider, Cadel Evans (Silence - Lotto) as the odds-on favourite for this year's race. Evans finished only 23 seconds behind the young Spaniard last year, and has been completely focused on making up for that loss in the 2008 edition.

Earlier this year at a press conference in Adelaide during the Tour Down Under, he was asked for his comments on how he would ride if Astana was not invited to the TdF. At the time, he jokingly said that he hoped that Astana would be in this year's Tour de France as there needed to be "a strong team to control the race".

Indeed, even a hostile Bruyneel pointed to Astana's strength, with the 2008 team featuring Contador, Levi Leipheimer (third in the 2008 TdF) and two-time TdF runner up, the former T-Mobile rider Andreas Klöden. "We maybe have a too strong team now?” Bruyneel said in response to the ASO decision.

It's likely that all the attention come July will now focus this year on the Belgian squad, placing additional pressure on Evans, the Australian rider who's been able to steadily improve at the Tour and largely sneak under the radar of the world's media. Evans has gone from eighth, to fourth and last year, second overall, as he has consistently improved in the world's biggest bike race.

The Silence - Lotto team has been bolstered for 2008 with the hiring of 2007 Discovery Channel rider Yaroslav Popovych, the Ukrainian strongman who rode consistently at the front of the peloton in the 2007 edition of the Tour de France. 'Popo' was a key team rider for both Contador and prior to the young Spaniard's short reign, Lance Armstrong. It looks like 'Popo' and the rest of the Silence - Lotto team will be facing a strong test of race leadership come this July.

Silence-Lotto directeur sportif Henrik Redant told Cyclingnews, "The problem is it [Astana's expulsion] will now put a little more pressure on us as, they were such a strong team, and having two guys there that can collaborate means that they were able to control the race much more. This is really going to change the Tour this year. We will have to wait and see how it is ridden."

Bruyneel disappointed: "incomprehensible"

Johan Bruyneel
Photo ©: Jon Devich
(Click for larger image)

The ASO decision has generated a stinging response from the director of Astana, Johan Bruyneel, who was also the director of the US Postal Service and Discovery Channel squads that secured some eight TdF victories with Lance Armstrong (1999-2005) and Alberto Contador (2007).

Bruyneel came out of a very short retirement to be the new director of the Astana team, which is sponsored by a conglomerate of companies from Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan. Last year, the team was expelled from the 2007 Tour de France after its star rider, Alexander Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping.

"Since breaking with the ProTour, Tour de France is free to issue its own invitations," Bruyneel said in an official team statement. "After the non selection for the Tour of Italy [Giro d'Italia], we knew that there would be a chance that ASO as well could consider not to invite us," he said. "The Giro argument, that we do not come to the race with our best riders, is no longer valid. With Tour number one and three of last year, Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer, and with two times runner up Andreas Klöden, we maybe have a too strong team now?"

Bruyneel grappled to find reasoning behind the decision, wondering as well, "Is Astana this year a victim of the war between UCI and ASO?" in a reference to the ongoing battle between he sport's ruling body and the owner of cycling's biggest races.

"ASO asked us in December [for] open communication. We communicated a lot but never got a reply. ASO has probably the right not to invite us", he said. "They want to augment the credibility of their races after the happenings of last year. Unfortunately, Tour the France will lose now much of its credibility by not letting participate some of world's best riders, who even were never were implied in doping scandals [sic]. The name of Alberto Contador was sometimes linked to the famous Puerto affair. A Spanish judge cleared him. Even afterwards, Alberto was always available for justice to give required information. He really has nothing to do with that sad affair."

Contador rages in Mallorca, may target Vuelta

Alberto Contador
Photo ©:
(Click for larger image)

News of the ASO's snub reached the 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador during stage four of the Volta a Mallorca. Charged with emotion, Contador attacked the peloton, catching the two-man breakaway of Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) and Jesús del Nero (Saunier Duval) which had been away for much of the stage, and charged away solo up the category two final climb. Clearly angry, he yelled to the television camera, "Astana in the Tour!". Ultimately, his effort was reeled in by the sprint-hungry bunch, but after the race, the 25-year-old Spaniard was close to tears describing his dashed hopes for a second Tour victory.

"My objectives for this year were to win the Tour again," Contador said. "The Tour is a race that I've always dreamed about, that I've always hoped to do before and again in the future. My objectives this year were to win it again, but I may not be given the possibility. This isn't a good moment to speak about this."

The Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme made it clear that the decision was made not as a personal slight against Contador, but as a reflection on the Astana team's past history. "If Contador changes teams, then he can take part," Prudhomme said. "This decision was not made against him."

The Spaniard expressed concern for the Astana team's Kazakh sponsors now that the Tour de France invitation had not been secured. "I thank our sponsor who stays behind us, but I'm afraid other sponsors can leave cycling because of what happened today. It is a sad day for cycling."

The Vuelta a España director Victor Cordero told Marca he felt the ASO's decision was excessive but justifiable, and that the team would be welcome to race in the Vuelta. Last year, Astana did not race the Vuelta after the doping positives of Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin, but Cordero said he has confidence that the team has changed.

"Contador deserves to be in all the races and for me he is a model for the future," Cordero said. "But what his team did in the past has led to this ban."

Contador went on to say that he may focus instead on his home tour, the Vuelta a España as well as the Olympic Games. "I hope that this is going to animate the Spanish people so that they enjoy my return to the Vuelta a España," he said at the post-race press conference. He later told Marca, "Although I would like to race the Tour, I have a plan B if I cannot race the Tour. I can still do a lot of preparation for the Olympic Games... and the Vuelta is my home tour."

Teams react to Astana ban

Jonathan Vaughters (Team Slipstream)

Jonathan Vaughters
Photo ©: John Pierce
(Click for larger image)

"It's such a multi-faceted and difficult situation to fully understand. We as teams, the media, and the public don't even get to see a glimpse of all the information that went into this decision. I think because of this complexity and uncertainty, ASO is just taking a 'wait and see' attitude with Astana, not condemning them. I don't think the decision is prejudiced or permanent, its just ASO allowing some time to pass before reassessing the situation."

"By hiring Dr. Damsgaard, I really feel Johan has made a good faith effort to help change things in cycling. Its nice to see - and I hope this latest news will not discourage him from continuing. And I know that Rasmus will do the best possible job. I'm guessing ASO just wants to see the fruits of this effort, first. So, I think Astana will be back in the fold soon.

"A lot has happened in cycling these last couple of years and everyone is trying to solve the problems in different ways. I just hope it all works out."

Hendrik Redant (Silence-Lotto)

"It is hard for those guys. I know that Bruyneel has done a lot of work to clean up the team, so this must come as a blow to them I bet. It must be tough to have worked so hard only to see all that work come to nothing."

"There is a positive and a negative to every story, and the positive for us is that we have lost two of our biggest competitors for the Tour. The problem is it will now put a little more pressure on us as, they were such a strong team, and having two guys there that can collaborate means that they were able to control the race much more. This is really going to change the Tour this year. We will have to wait and see how it is ridden."

"They [Astana] had lots of problems last year with doping, but they worked hard to clean up the team. They are a team that was built to ride the Tour so it must be hard when you are not granted a spot, especially for all those riders."

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