Excluded riders won't be replaced
Spain’s ongoing doping investigation turned into an executioner Friday at the Tour de France, essentially decapitating the peloton’s hierarchy just 24 hours ahead of Saturday’s prologue start in Strasbourg.
Pre-race favorites Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) and Ivan Basso (CSC) were among nine riders from five teams who were ruled out of the 93rd Tour in what brought back bad memories of the 1998 Festina scandal.
Others not being allowed to start are Oscar Sevilla (T-Mobile), Francisco Mancebo (Ag2r) and five members of Astana-Wurth: Sergio Paulinho, Isidro Nozal, Allan Davis, Alberto Contador and Joseba Beloki.
Ullrich’s and Basso’s names were on a list of riders released by Spanish authorities late Thursday that were alleged to have contact with Eufemiano Fuentes, the Spanish doctor at the center of an suspected blood doping ring.
“I have nothing to do with all this, but I will let my lawyers speak about this before me,” Basso told Italian television.
Only nine names were on an official UCI list, but Spanish media outlets printed a longer version that included 32 active riders and five retired riders.
“I am in shock. I could cry,” Ullrich told German television. “I have no contact with Fuentes. I don’t know him. I arrived at this Tour in perfect condition. I am completely depressed but I will fight with my lawyers.”
Spanish authorities uncovered an alleged blood doping ring with five arrests May 23 and a series of media leaks over the past week reached a boiling point ahead of this weekend’s start of cycling’s marquee race.
Officials took the unprecedented decision Friday to try to prevent the Tour from being overwhelmed by the sport’s biggest doping scandal since the 1998 Festina Affaire.
“This is worse than 1998. Cycling is at the point of death,” said Caisse d’Epargne sport director Eusebio Unzue. “We are losing prestige and we have to rebuild cycling. The image of elite cycling isn’t one of health, but of a sport that exists on the limits of legality.”
After a series of crisis meetings Friday between the recently-installed Tour director Christian Prudhomme and the AIGCP, the body which represents the managers of all the teams taking part, Prudhomme was unequivocal in the race organizers’ position.
“We’re happy about T-Mobile’s decision to suspend Sevilla and Ullrich,” said Prudhomme, who is directing his first race in place of the retired Jean-Marie Leblanc. “Last night we received official documents from the Guardia Civil (Spanish police) via the Spanish cycling federation.
“We then had a meeting with the AIGCP. During that meeting it was decided that the race’s ethical code will be applied to the letter and that none of the riders suspended will be allowed to be replaced. The sporting directors of each team will now contact the riders concerned.”
The decision to stop five Astaná-Würth riders could keep attacking Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov out of the Tour.
Because only four riders remain – Vinokourov, Andrey Kashechkin, Carlos Barredo and Luis Leon Sanchez – Astaná-Würth would not meet the minimum requirement of six riders and the team might not be allowed to start. No decision was yet taken late Friday.
If Vinokourov is left out, it would mean that the top-five finishers from last year’s Tour won’t be starting Saturday in Strasbourg.
Following a string of damaging media leaks all week, Spanish authorities handed over court documents from Operación Puerto to French authorities, which wasted no time in trying to prevent the scandal from derailing the Tour.
Tour officials took swift action once they had more damning information in their hands and begin working to assure that any riders whose names appeared on the Spanish list wouldn’t be taking Saturday’s start.
Sport directors from all 21 teams had a closed-door, emergency meeting late Friday morning to confront the crisis and unanimously agreed to respect the UCI’s ProTour ethics code, which says any rider implicated in a doping investigation wouldn’t be allowed to start. Teams also agreed that replacement riders wouldn’t be named to fill any vacancies. (see statement from Discovery director Johan Bruyneel on that meeting)
“This was the first time that all teams are in agreement about this terrible problem,” said Gerolsteiner team manager Hans-Michael Holczer. “It took only a few minutes to agree. We have to be resolute. Despite this awful mess, maybe cycling can begin to go on the right way now.”
Ullrich was traveling on a T-Mobile bus to a scheduled morning press meeting when Tour officials faxed documents to team officials that implicated him, Sevilla and team manager Rudy Pevenage.
Ullrich was allegedly linked to Fuentes with coded messages referring to the 1997 Tour winner as “hijo de Rudicio” (son of Rudicio, as Rudy) as well as other references to “Jan” in some of the seized ledgers.
Team officials made a rush decision – based more on the fact that Ullrich looked to be less than honest about links to Fuentes – and immediately suspended all three.
“The news shocked me. It is the worst thing that has happened in my career,” said Ullrich. “I now need a few days’ peace and will then take advice from my lawyers about how I can prove my innocence.” Ullrich said his teammates were also devastated by the news of his exclusion, but said he had urged them to compete in the Tour without him.
“They will soon discuss whether the team should take part at all. But I have said to them: go ahead and fight for me.”
He was speaking after spending hours discussing with his manager Wolfgang Strohband and lawyers in the team hotel in Blaesheim near Strasbourg.
Basso takes it in stride
Basso, meanwhile, was about 50km into a training ride when Riis called with the bad news. The Giro d’Italia champion returned to the team hotel, met with Riis and then escaped in a team car without comment.
“We have decided to take him out of the race because that’s our responsibility to do that,” Riis said during an impromptu press conference in front of the team’s hotel. “I believe Ivan is telling me the truth. It’s far too early to decide anything about how far he’s involved in Spain. All I know is what I read in the media.”
The 28-year-old Italian has maintained his innocence and said he was now waiting to hear of evidence that would prove his guilt beyond doubt.
“I’m totally relaxed. I’m waiting for someone to prove to me that I am guilty,” said Basso.
Time to retire
For Ag2r, which signed Mancebo to a multi-million dollar contract to lead the French team, the news came as a huge blow ahead of what they hoped would be a breakthrough Tour for the team.
“This bad news constitutes an enormous deception of the human and financial commitments concerning the recruitment of this rider to our team,” said Ag2r team manager Vicent Lavenu. “I hope that the enthusiasm and motivation can quickly pick up on our team so that the riders to shine at a high level on the Tour de France.”
Lavenu said that Mancebo took the news bravely, but said he was through with the sport.
“At the breakfast table I could feel what was in store,” said Lavenu. “Francisco told me, ‘I’m leaving. I’m hanging up my bike.’”
Teams were uncharacteristically united in the decision to eliminate the riders alleged to have worked with Fuentes.
Still, no charges have been filed following the four-month police investigation in Spain, but the teams were consistent that a strong message had to be sent.
“We can see this in two lights. First, it’s of course very bad for cycling and it’s image,” said Saunier Duval sport director Mauro Gianetti. “But it’s good because maybe we can finally solve this problem in cycling. I believe (Fuentes) was the last big one in this line. The ambiance is changing in cycling.”
Changing the race
Elimination of many of the Tour’s top hopes completely changes the dynamic of the Tour, set to begin its three-week run with Saturday’s 7.1km prologue in Strasbourg.
“I almost feel sorry for anyone who wins this Tour, because there will always be an asterisk next to it,” said CSC’s Christian Vande Velde.
Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), a leading Spanish rider who spoke before hearing that Basso had been kicked out, said the race complexion changes dramatically.
“This is a very hard blow for the race,” Valverde said. “It’s not normal what’s happened, but I almost expected something like this. It’s strange and I am just ready to start racing. It’s going to be different without Jan there to dominate the race.”
Riders tried to go about their business of final-day preparations ahead of the Tour. Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) took time to conduct TV interviews and meet other members of the media.
“Despite all these reports and news, nothing really changes for me. I am focused on the Tour and focus on doing a good race,” Leipheimer said. “A lot of people think now their chances have improved, but we have to wait and see. You still have to make a good Tour.”
It was a chaotic scene outside the Team CSC hotel as journalists and photographers waited for Riis to make a statement. In the meantime, Liquigas riders returned from a training ride to find the brewing media storm.
“We’ve kept out of it. We’re not involved in any way and all we want to do is ride our bikes and race,” said Magnus Bäckstedt. “It’s just a shame for the sport that this is all happening again.”
The Tour survived the 1998 scandal and rode through seven years of domination by Armstrong. Everyone is hoping that Friday’s preemptive strike will turn the focus back to cycling for Saturday’s opening prologue.