Contador caught in the crossfire

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Tour de France organisers uphold Astana ban, leaving cycling's regulators irked

15 February 2008

MADRID - "If Alberto Contador changes teams, he can ride in the Tour," said Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France general director. His comment served as an addendum to the decision announced on Wednesday by the Tour's organisers, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), to bar the reigning Tour de France champion's Astana team from the upcoming Tour, as well as all other events it organises this year.

Prudhomme intended to show that the ASO's bone to pick is not with the Spanish cyclist, but rather with the scandal-ridden team that he signed a contract with last October. "You can't just erase the last two years at a stroke," Prudhomme said.

But for Contador, financial and sponsorship constraints, as well as the commitment he made to the Kazakh team, make a switch virtually impossible. The cyclist, who received the news while competing in the Vuelta a Mallorca, was incredulous. "It's an unfair decision based on the team's past," he said. "I didn't even want to believe that this was a possibility."

The team's past - Prudhomme's two non-erasable years - refer to Astana's 2006 season under the name Liberty-Würth, where infamous sports director Manolo Saiz was arrested for his ties to the Operation Puerto doping ring and the team was disbanded. Then, under Swiss director Marc Biver's direction in 2007, the team's top rider and then Tour de France leader Alexander Vinokourov was sent home mid-Tour for failing a doping test.

2008 was deigned to be a new slate for Astana. Under the new direction of Belgian Johan Bruyneel, the team has so far spent EUR 300,000 on an internal doping control program, given EUR 120,000 to the UCI, the sport's governing body to jumpstart its biological passport initiative, and invested EUR 60,000 more in a computer program to locate cyclists. Bruyneel announced in October that his new Astana would commit to a fierce anti-doping platform with heavy medical monitoring and transparency throughout the year.

While the ASO has not appeared to buy Bruyneel and his star rider Contador's promise of squeaky clean redemption, one organisation that has is the International Cycling Union (UCI). This is surprising given it is precisely this regulatory body that has come down hard on Spanish cyclists in the recent past.

In September, the UCI called Spain "a disgrace" regarding its perceived softness on doping, as it fought (and lost) in front of an international tribunal to keep the Puerto-implicated cyclist Alejandro Valverde out of the World Cycling Championships.

Cycling's chief anti-doping crusader, the UCI's president, Pat McQuaid, unleashed after the polemic 2007 French Tour an aggressive "zero-tolerance" program in the sport, which included almost 10,000 blood screens and having riders sign a "voluntary" anti-doping pledge if they wanted to ride.

Regarding Astana, the UCI has proved willing to offer it a fresh start, evidenced by its granting a license to the team in December. McQuaid on Wednesday came out against the ASO's stance: "This decision does not come as a complete surprise, but evidently, I can not accept it and I don't understand it. I don't share ASO's motives to exclude a team that has done everything to clean up its turbulent past. This team has obtained a license, which means it has satisfied the required criteria from a sporting, ethical and financial point of view," he said.

Essentially, Contador and team Astana may find themselves in the middle of what has become a political struggle between the ASO, seeking to reclaim its right to manage the Tour, and the UCI, the international organisation that writes cycling's rulebook.

The fact that the ASO still looks at Bruyneel -  director when Lance Armstrong took seven consecutive Tour wins - with a suspicious eye, can't be seen to help its case. While the struggle is played out, Contador will be left pondering the "injustice" of the situation. "I have spent a lot of time preparing for [the Tour]," he said.

[Copyright EL PAÍS / K. RAMUNDO / C. ARRIBAS 2008]

Subject: Spanish news

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