Friday, June 30, 2006

What will happen now?

By Phil Liggett
Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Francisco Mancebo, the three outstanding favorites to win the Tour de France when it gets underway in Strasbourg today, were sent home yesterday after their names were linked to a drugs syndicate in Spain.Guilty by implication rather than any solid proof, the three riders have all denied any association with the drugs bust five weeks ago which was known to Spanish police as Operacion Puerto. Their names appear on an official list sent to the Tour organizers late on Wednesday.Spanish police investigating doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, who is accused of trafficking in all types of performance enhancing drugs including growth hormones and the blood booster EPO released the list which contained up to 58 names of riders who are accused of visiting his premises in Madrid.More names are expected to be announced before the race begins this afternoon after team managers have sifted through a 500 page court report that was sent to France by the Spanish judiciary.Tour de France organizers called a meeting yesterday morning with all 21 teams taking part and as a result earned a unanimous decision from the team managers that any name on the list would be withdrawn from the team without a replacement possible.T-Mobile immediately withdrew Ullrich, the winner of the race in 1997 and who finished three times second to American Lance Armstrong during his run of seven wins, and the Spaniard Oscar Sevilla who has always denied going to see Fuentes, yet has been photographed near his premises.Ullrich, 32 and the recent winner of the Tour of Switzerland, has continually denied being linked to Dr Fuente’s surgery and has offered his blood for a DNA test to prove that blood being held in Spain is not his. Even if events prove Ullrich’s innocence later this year, at his age his career is virtually over. Basso, the odds-on favourite to win the race after finishing second last year and only last month, being an emphatic winner of the Tour of Italy by the biggest margin for 42 years, was out training when his Danish CSC team agreed he would not be allowed to start either.His manager, Bjarne Riis said:” I know nothing about what has happened in Spain, but we have taken the decision to take Ivan out based on evidence we have. However, he is not necessarily guilty of anything at this stage.”Francisco Mancebo, who won the best Tour newcomer award in 2000 and has since finished fourth (last year) and sixth, was also withdrawn by his French AG2r team, leaving them with no likely winner of the race overall when it ends in Paris on July 23.It is thought that the list, which has taken more than five weeks to be released because of the complicated and coded many entries in Dr Fuentes books, include other sports’ stars. Those athletes involved are said to have used the names of their pet dogs to avoid being identified. American Tyler Hamilton, already serving a two-year suspension for blood doping, is also among those named.Christian Prudhomme, the deputy Tour director, said:” We will fight doping all the way. Cycling is a wonderful sport, but doping is our enemey.” Rather than being depressed at yet another drugs controversy yesterday, the Tour organizers are elated at the progress they feel has been made towards a cleaner sport.The Tour organizers were upset at losing their appeal to the Court of Arbitration to sport yesterday, allowing the Astana-Wurth team to ride. Known formerly as Liberty-Seguros, team manager Manolo Seiz is also accused of buying drugs from Fuentes. He has since distanced himself from the knew team although he owns more than half of the company that owns the team itself.Prudhomme continued: “This team is not welcome as there are names on the list although these riders are not here for the Tour de France. We would like this team, not to start.”Astana-Wurth’s star rider is Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokourov and he is determined to ride the race having finished third in 2003 and fifth last year. He has already claimed that he believes Manolo Saiz when he says he is not involved in the biggest sporting scandal ever to hit Spain.Originally 198 riders on 22 teams were entered for the 2300 miles race, but after Ignacio Labarto, the manager of the Communidad Valenciana team was also named as being under investigation, the Tour organizers immediately withdrew their invitation.Now, with as many as 22 riders thought to be linked with Dr Fuentes’ list, the prologue this afternoon may see only 170 riders take the start in the Place de Bordeaux.The opening seven kilometers time trial will be the hors d’oeuvre to the most open Tour for years in the absence of such star names and Americans, Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer and Spain’s Alejandro Valverde along with Australian Cadel Evans will find their favourite tag now more than deserved.Britain’s David Millar, himself re-entering the sport today after serving a two-year suspension for using EPO in June 2003 when he won the World time trial title, could be the winner of this short time test.Millar said yesterday: “I’m a little bit apprehensive and I feel ashamed, but I lied and cheated and now I want everyone to know that I am riding this race clean.”

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