Amaury Sport Organization, the company that owns the Tour de France announced Wednesday that the Astana team of defending champion Alberto Contador will not be invited to compete in that race or in any other event it organizes in 2008.
In a statement citing “the damage caused by this team to the Tour de France and cycling in general, as much in 2006 as 2007,” ASO noted it would be inappropriate to allow the team to compete despite a complete shake-up of team management and significant changes on the squad’s roster.
With Contador and American Levi Leipheimer on Astana, the team includes two podium finishers from last year’s Tour. Also affected is Germany’s Andreas Klöden. All three men were widely viewed as race favorites.
Contador, who also won ASO’s early season stage race, Paris-Nice, was not a part of the Astana team in 2007. He and Leipheimer were both part of the U.S.-based Discovery Channel team, which folded at the end of the season. Contador, however, has been named in connection with the now-closed Operación Puerto investigation in Spain.
The decision by ASO comes after Giro d’Italia organizers opted not to invite the team to this year’s edition of Italy’s grand tour. That decision, blasted by UCI president Pat McQuaid, was seen as the first exercise of the independence of the three organizers of the world’s grand tours, the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta a España. Vuelta organizers, however, said that the team would be welcome at their 2008 event.
While the Giro decision was not explicitly related to the Astana team’s past, ASO pulled no punches when announcing its decision.
“The Astana team in effect last year betrayed the confidence of organizers who even then invited them on trust of an overhaul presented by their leaders,” ASO said.
The team, which emerged from the ashes of the former Liberty Seguros program, was banned from the 2006 Tour because five of its members were ejected from the race after being named in connection with the Puerto investigation.
Not among those named in 2006, former Astana team leader Alexander Vinokourov returned to the 2007 Tour and turned in a seemingly heroic performance, until he tested positive for homologous blood doping. Vinokourov has insisted on his innocence and angrily retired from the sport last December.
The team had already suffered a blow to its reputation when team member Matthias Kessler tested positive for testosterone after last year’s Fleche Wallone. Following the Tour, Vinokourov’s compatriot Andrej Kashechkin also tested positive for blood doping in an out-of-competition test on August 1.
Those results prompted team sponsors – a consortium of Kazakh government agencies and businesses – to fire several riders and eliminate the bulk of top team management. The new team and its management structure includes several members of the Discovery team, including manager Johan Bruyneel. Bruyneel is credited with Lance Armstrong to seven consecutive Tour wins, and leading Contador to his first yellow jersey last year.
Bruyneel was clearly not pleased with the news.
“I don’t want to say too much out of respect to my team and my riders, because I might not say very nice things,” Bruyneel told VeloNews by telephone. “The Tour was ‘kind enough’ to call me 15 minutes before the press release to notify me. It doesn’t come as a complete surprise, but the fact that we were singled out doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Leipheimer was contacted at home by VeloNews, but the American rider declined to comment, saying he would address the ASO situation at the Amgen Tour of California press conference on Saturday.
Slipstream director Jonathan Vaughters, whose team received an invitation to Paris-Nice and appears on track for a Tour slot as well, credited Astana with taking major steps to get beyond its recent history.
“I don’t think its permanent or prejudice of ASO, they are simply taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude,” Vaughters told VeloNews. “Astana has put a very rigorous anti-doping program in place, with a very bright anti-doping scientist (Rasmus Damsaguard). Over time I think this step will see Astana back into ASO races, I’m just guessing that they want some time to be assured that these new measures will work as intended. I know Damsaguard will do the best job possible, so I’m sure things will work out for everyone in the future.”
Indeed, ASO recognized Astana’s reorganization effort, but noted that the team still needs to prove itself, since it had already undergone a complete reorganization in late 2006.
“As the team has once again changed,” ASO stated in its press release, “ASO will remain vigilant to Astana’s efforts to put in place for a 2008 season without scandals and suspicion and could so consider an eventual bid for future events.”
Contacted by VeloNews on Tuesday, a spokesman for team equipment sponsor, SRAM, said the company remains committed to the Astana program.
“We have faith in Johan Bruyneel, the Astana team, and the Amaury Sport Organization,” said SRAM media manager Michael Zellmann. “We have a strong hope that the new team Astana will be allowed to ride in the Tour and all ASO events. Despite the name, this is a new team, with new riders, new management, new structure and new health and testing procedures that are the best available. We remain strongly committed to this team as well as all of our teams.”
Scott Daubert, Trek’s road bike marketing manager, said the team’s bike sponsor was disappointed “to say the least.”
“We knew that that was the risk,” he said. “We have a lot of faith in Johan [Bruyneel], with everything that he had done in brining his staff and his structure into the Astana program, and his efforts to make things transparent with his testing programs….”
Daubert said Trek remains committed to the Astana squad.
“We don’t have anything else in Europe, certainly not another Tour team,” he said. “We have some regional teams in Europe. We think that Johan’s program is the best program. That’s where we put our time and energy.”
Daubert said that the company’s total investment in the team “might” have totaled $1 million, “because we’re doing clothing as well as bikes and Bontrager parts. It’s one-stop shopping for Johan. He can come to Trek with a wish list of ‘these wheels, gloves, shorts, frames, etc.’ and we can deliver as the make-all manufacturer. It’s easier. He trusts us.”
Daubert added that the ASO decision in no way diminishes Trek’s commitment to Astana.
“We were disappointed that our marketing venture in the team won’t be competing in the Tour de France,” he noted, “but the bottom line is that we have very good products right now. We’re selling every Madone that we make before it’s even been made. We’re taking it as it comes our way. It’s also very early days. We’ll see if [the ASO situation] changes shape.”
“We believe that (Bruyneel) has done everything that it takes to be a fully legitimate team, Daubert added. “Unfortunately, it is still called Astana, and it’s still in blue. That’s all ASO is seeing. We here at Trek know that it’s not the team of old, but ASO apparently does not.”
VeloNews.com editor Charles Pelkey, European correspondent Andrew Hood, editor Ben Delaney, editor-at-large Patrick O’Grady and Agence France Presse contributed to this report.