SAINT-QUENTIN, France (VN) – Four former teammates of Lance Armstrong who have suddenly found themselves the center of an international media firestorm can stay in the Tour de France.
At least that’s the initial reaction from teams, the UCI and race officials, who took a cautious view to a blockbuster story hitting three European newspapers on Thursday morning.
Reports that four riders – George Hincapie (BMC Racing), Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie (both Garmin-Sharp) – are all collaborating in an ongoing doping investigation against the defiant Tour star ripped through the Tour on Thursday.
It’s the first time that names have been publicly linked to an alleged list of 10 witnesses that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) says it has to support claims that Armstrong was the center of a doping conspiracy from 1999 through 2011.
After a morning round of “no comments” ahead of Thursday’s start of the Tour’s fifth stage, the story continued to broil throughout the afternoon.
One of the big questions remains whether riders involved in an ongoing investigation that might have included doping activities should be allowed to race.
Officials, however, seemed unwilling to react to what they characterized as unsubstantiated media reports.
When contacted by VeloNews, UCI president Pat McQuaid deferred, saying cycling’s governing body would not publicly comment on the controversial case, which could see Armstrong stripped of his record seven yellow jerseys.
“Our last communiqué said, ‘UCI will not comment further,” McQuaid wrote in a message. “That remains the position.”
Another UCI official, speaking on background, said that USADA has not shared information concerning the Armstrong investigation with the UCI, making it impossible for the UCI to consider suspending any riders or staff members, the official said.
That means that Zabriskie, Vande Velde, Leipheimer and Hincapie can stay in the Tour, at least from the UCI’s perspective.
It is not known if USADA has passed along information to USA Cycling, the governing body holding the racing licenses of the four Americans currently racing in the Tour.
In the past, organizers and governing bodies have removed riders involved in ongoing investigations from competition, but that does not seem to be the case unfolding now.
Tour de France officials also refused to comment on the erupting story. Tour director Christian Prudhomme did not make any public comments.
In an interview with VeloNews at the start of the Tour, Prudhomme said there was far too much uncertainty around the Armstrong investigation to make an informed comment.
“I cannot comment on Armstrong,” Prudhomme said Sunday. “We need to wait because with all this, ‘if, if, if,’ we will only have if’s. It’s for that we cannot comment.”
On the finish line in Saint-Quentin, teams were hesitant to address the explosive question of whether the riders should be removed.
At the Team BMC bus, team president Jim Ochowicz and sport director John Lelangue agreed to only respond to what they characterized as “sporting questions” after the stage and refused to answer further questions about the story.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step sport director Brian Holm said that Leipheimer stays on the team for now.
“There is nothing official, what can we do? We just know what was in the paper this morning. As far as I know, we have not had any official contact with anyone,” Holm told VeloNews. “I wouldn’t think it’s very nice right now for Levi. No one would like to hear stuff like that. The riders are so concentrated at the Tour.”
Garmin-Sharp boss Jonathan Vaughters briefly addressed reporters after the stage, calling the story “amateur.”
“That article was essentially irresponsible,” Vaughters said. “There was not any source. That’s not my choice. That’s their decision (to publish the names).”
Earlier in the morning, Vaughters reiterated the team’s strong anti-doping policy and his pledge that all Garmin riders and employees cooperate fully with anti-doping authorities without fear of retribution from the team.
Teams likely already had an idea that a story like this could erupt during the Tour and decided to bring their riders to the race, meaning it’s unlikely they would be removed from the race unless they were pressured by the UCI or ASO.
The story was simultaneously leaked to three European newspapers: De Telegraaf in Amsterdam, El País in Madrid and La Gazzetta dello Sport in Milan.
One of the reporters who wrote the stories confirmed that the source came from the United States, but would not disclose its identity.