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AIGCP demands immediate Phonak and Astana suspensions

By Andrew Hood

Leaders from the top ProTour teams huddled in Brussels on Wednesday and demanded swift action on a variety of issues, including the immediate suspension of the Phonak and Astana teams.

In a communiqué released Wednesday evening by the AIGCP (International Association of Professional Cycling Groups), representatives from 17 ProTour teams insisted that the two controversial teams be kept out of further competition.

“In light of the confusion and the disastrous image caused by the latest affaires, the ProTour teams unanimously demand that the UCI License Commission study the immediate provisional suspension of [Astana] and [Phonak],” the statement read.

All teams were represented at the Brussel’s pow-wow except Ag2r, Phonak and Astana.

The meeting comes on the heels of Phonak’s decision Tuesday to fold its team at the end of the 2006 season. Team owner Andy Rihs said he couldn’t find another sponsor to take over the team next season following the fallout of the Floyd Landis doping scandal.

San Francisco-based iShares balked on its commitment to take over the team from 2007-09 after Landis failed doping controls with irregular levels of testosterone. Landis, who insists on his innocence, faces becoming the first Tour winner to have his title stripped due to a doping violation in the race’s 103-year history.

Rihs has vowed to keep the team in scheduled competition through the remainder of the 2006 season, but it’s obvious that the other ProTour teams don’t want Phonak’s dubious reputation muddying waters under the microscope of intense media attention on the sport.

The pow-wow also demands to clarify the ProTour license issue of Astana, which has been thrown into turmoil since ex-team director Manolo Sáiz was among five people arrested in May as part of “Operación Puerto.”

Liberty Seguros pulled the plug on its $8 million annual sponsorship deal following Sáiz’ arrest, but Kazakh sponsor Astana quickly stepped in to save the team captained by national hero Alexandre Vinokourov.

The team was kept out of the Tour de France, however, after five of its starting nine riders were implicated in the Puerto investigation. Those five have since been cleared by a Spanish court, but the status of the team’s ProTour license remains uncertain.

Sources told VeloNews that the new Kazakh sponsors want to create their own team with a new ProTour license of their own and have nothing to do with Sáiz, who continues to insist on his innocence and whose Active Bay S.A. continues to own the team’s ProTour license. Efforts by the Kazakh’s to buy out Sáiz have recently failed, sources told VeloNews.

The ProTour teams are also keen to avoid another publicity fiasco ahead of the start of next weekend’s Vuelta a España and have demanded that the UCI insist on the release of any other names linked to the Puerto investigation by next Tuesday.

There are rumored to other names of riders linked to the Spanish investigation that have still yet to be revealed by authorities.

Cycling’s strongest teams want to avoid the PR disaster that nearly derailed the 2006 Tour when the sports biggest names – Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Francisco Mancebo and Oscar Sevilla – were linked to the ongoing doping investigation.

The association made other demands, including:The UCI License Commission should meet by Monday to rule whether the ProTour licenses of both teams are valid.The UCI should reveal all riders implicated in the “Operación Puerto” doping investigation by next Tuesday at the latest.The ProTour teams reiterated their decision to apply the Ethics Code in a firm manner.The formation of a working committee to suggest changes to the Ethics Code to adapt to today’s situation, especially on how to best deal with irregularities within teams.