Rock Racing team owner Michael Ball insisted Saturday that his team will start with all eight of the riders whose names he submitted to race organizers — including Tyler Hamilton, Oscar Sevilla and Santiago Botero — or none at all.
“We live as a team, and we’ll die as a team,” Ball said.
Rock Racing called a press conference to address questions about the team’s Amgen Tour of California roster, which was originally released by race organizers AEG on Thursday. That roster included only five Rock Racing riders, while Ball had originally submitted a list of eight that included Hamilton, Sevilla and Botero. All three have been mentioned in connection with the recently reopened Operación Puerto investigation in Spain, but none has been formally been told that he is under investigation.
Embarrassed by a relatively low-level anti-doping program in 2007, AEG unveiled a rigorous new protocol in January. Part of that effort included a promise to exclude any rider under investigation for doping.
An updated roster released on Saturday also noted that Rock rider Kayle Leogrande’s spot on the Tour of California team would be taken by retired world champion Mario Cipollini. Leogrande is suing the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for defamation after it requested a follow-up test on a sample that had produced inconclusive results. Nonetheless, Leogrande was apparently cleared by AEG to race and his name had appeared on the Thursday roster, but Cipollini has taken that spot and is slated to ride on Sunday.
As media gathered for the team press conference, four Rock Racing models entered the room and stood by a television that featured a short video from the team’s recent training camp in Malibu. Ball then strode to the microphone in full Rock Racing team kit and promised to fight to have all of his riders at the start.
Ball said he hopes the omission of the three was simply an administrative glitch and that Hamilton, Botero and Sevilla would be cleared to ride. In the audience were Jim Birrell, of race organizers Medalist Sports, and Michael Roth, communications director for AEG. Neither would comment, instead suggesting that reporters pose questions at the organization’s own pre-race press conference, slated for later in the day.
“I’m steadfast in my guys riding,” Ball said. “I’m in a position to give these guys who may or may not have made a mistake a second chance. They’re willing to step up for a second chance and I’m willing to give them that chance.”
“I have never seen a more political environment,” Ball said. “The fashion world has its politics, but nothing like this.”
Attorney Maurice Suh, who also represents embattled 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, flanked Ball during the one-hour press conference. Repeatedly asked whether Rock would race, Ball repeatedly conferred with Suh, and at least once Ball answered by saying, “I’m not at liberty to say.”
“I would like to say that we are very optimistic,” Ball said. “I’m an optimistic person, and I am optimistic that these things will work out.”
Ball said it was time for riders to form a union to prevent what he deemed to be abuse of the current system.
“It’s good for business,” Ball said. “With a union comes security. That means athletes who make mistakes aren’t outed – and the investors and sponsors aren’t out. Control for the sport has to come from within: a riders’ union and in each team organization. That’s how it is in other sports.”