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Sevilla, Botero and Hamilton will not ride

Sevilla, Botero and Hamilton will not ride

By Neal Rogers

AEG Sports president Andrew Messick said Rock will have only five riders at the line on Sunday

AEG Sports president Andrew Messick said Rock will have only five riders at the line on Sunday

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

It may be the smallest team to line up for the Amgen Tour of California, but Rock Racing has managed to be the biggest story on the eve of this country’s largest stage race.

Team owner Michael Ball announced late Saturday that the team would start only five of the eight riders on the roster he had submitted.

Earlier in the day, Ball had said that if Tyler Hamilton, Oscar Sevilla and Santiago Botero — three riders excluded from the official start list — were not allowed to start, the team would pull out of the race. However, the team’s riders and staff collectively decided Saturday night not to withdraw.

“Our team is ready to go out there and show them what we can do,” Ball said in a press release issued Saturday night. “These guys are fired up and in the best shape of their lives. We’re ready to go out there and win.”

At a pre-race press conference held Saturday afternoon in downtown Palo Alto, Tour of California race organizers AEG told a packed room of journalists that any rider under investigation for doping, as defined by the UCI, would not be allowed to start the race.

VIDEO: Rock Racing press conference: Michael Ball Q&A (11:58)
VIDEO: Interview with UCI anti-doping manager Anne Gripper (2:44)

The tone at the press conference was somewhat dour given the developments earlier in the day. Just 100 feet from where Ball had earlier declared that his team would field all eight riders or none at all, AEG Sports president Andrew Messick said that the team would be allowed to start only five and that Rock could not replace those riders barred from the event.

Birrell hopes attention will eventually turn to racing.

Birrell hopes attention will eventually turn to racing.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

“The only riders allowed to start are those officially on the roster,” Messick said. “There is a process by which riders are put on the roster. As of today, we bent quite a number of rules to allow the inclusion of Mario Cipollini. And as of today Rock Racing has five riders on its roster.”

Officials in attendance included Messick, Phyllis Piano, communications director for Amgen, Jim Birrell of race organizers Medalist Sports and USA Cycling chief operating officer Sean Petty.

Riders attending the press conference included David Millar (Slipstream-Chipotle), Levi Leipheimer (Astana), George Hincapie (High Road), Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt (CSC) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank). Also at the front table was Rock Racing’s Freddie Rodriguez, who wore sunglasses throughout.

While race organizers espoused a world-class field of 17 teams and the addition of major climbs on stages 3 and 7, the story of the day was whether Hamilton, Sevilla and Botero would be allowed to race.

At the center of the debate is AEG’s anti-doping initiative, which states, “All participating teams have agreed to guarantee that all members of their teams, including coaches, trainers and support staff, are clear of any open doping investigations.”

Leipheimer is happy to be defending his ATOC jersey...

Leipheimer is happy to be defending his ATOC jersey…

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Teams provided their rosters to AEG last week. Organizers then submitted the names to USA Cycling and UCI to confirm that there were no open investigations.

The crux of the debate is the definition of an “open doping investigation.” Hamilton, Sevilla and Botero have all been implicated in Operación Puerto, although all three are licensed to ride by the UCI and do not have open investigations with anti-doping agencies.

Pressed to clarify which organization determined that those riders are under investigation, Messick said it was the international governing body that made the call.

... but also has another race in mind.

… but also has another race in mind.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

“USA Cycling told us that there were no riders currently under investigation,” Messick said. “And of all the riders who came back, and those names will remain nameless here, all of those riders came from the UCI and, in fact, all were affiliated with Operación Puerto.”

Earlier on Saturday Rock Racing provided reporters with a letter, dated February 14, from UCI president Pat McQuaid to Spanish cycling federation general secretary Eugenio Bermudez stating that Sevilla was free to race.

“When contacted last week by the organizer of the Tour of California, the UCI confirmed that Mr. Sevilla was one of the riders named in Puerto,” McQuaid wrote. “This has widely been reported in the press.

Julich is ready to start another season.

Julich is ready to start another season.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

“Many organizers have taken the position that they do not want riders implicated in Puerto in their races. The UCI, as the governing body of cycling, cannot support this position from a legal standpoint even if the UCI agrees with it from a moral point of view. However, the UCI has to follow its rules and relevant legislation and Mr. Sevilla is innocent until proven guilty. There is no current anti-doping rule or other legal impediment to Mr. Sevilla taking part in races. However, the UCI respects the organizers’ right to select the teams and riders it considers best reflect the Tour of California’s position on sporting ethics.”

Messick said that McQuaid’s letter to Bermudez was immaterial, as AEG simply asked the UCI to inform them which riders were involved in “open investigations.”

“What is important to understand about that letter is that absolutely is irrelevant,” Messick said. “Whether an athlete is eligible to ride in the UCI races has no bearing on what all 17 teams agreed to about the eligibility of riders for this race. Every team agreed that no riders who are under an open investigation would participate. Every team agreed that USA Cycling and UCI would tell us about any riders who are currently under investigation and that is the criteria. That is the basis. That is the rule.”

Asked with whom at the UCI he had consulted, Messick named UCI anti-doping manager Anne Gripper, who was also at the press conference. Gripper explained to VeloNews that while the riders implicated in Puerto do not have open investigations with anti-doping agencies, they are under investigation by Spanish prosecutors.

Operación Puerto, which broke in May 2006, had been in legal limbo since a Spanish judge ordered the case closed. However, the case has been reopened following a Spanish appeals-court ruling.

“The situation is confusing, I know, because under UCI rules these riders are allowed to ride in UCI-sanctioned events,” Gripper said. “Our rules indicate that a rider is allowed to enter and ride in races until a final decision has been made on any potential anti-doping rule violation. What we were able to do, just a week ago, was to confirm with AEG what was already in the public domain, that three riders were involved in ongoing investigations into possible anti-doping rule violations. AEG relied on the UCI to confirm that what they thought was the case was in fact the case.”

The language of the AEG team contract states that teams “agree to participate fully with all anti-doping initiatives as established by UCI, USA Cycling, USADA and WADA and to be subject to the respective sanctions of such governing organizations… No member of the team, which shall include without limitation named riders, coaches, trainers and team management, shall have any open investigation as determined by UCI and/or USA Cycling with regard to any matter involving a violation by such team member of any anti-doping rules as established by UCI, USA Cycling, USADA and/or WADA, unless or until such team member has been acquitted of such violation by UCI, USA Cycling, USADA and/or WADA.”

At Rock’s press conference Saturday Ball said the entire peloton was behind his team. Asked if that was true, Millar – once suspended for using EPO and now an anti-doping campaigner – said he admires AEG’s new stance.

Millar said he applauds AEG's new stance on doping.

Millar said he applauds AEG’s new stance on doping.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

“I think to have a sponsor like Rock Racing come into cycling is brilliant, but I think the initiatives AEG have taken are the future of the sport,” Millar said. “They have taken responsibility with these anti-doping initiatives. Rock Racing should try to respect what organizers are doing, and if they do that they will get all my respect.”

Ball reluctantly accepted AEG’s decision and did not withdraw his team from the race. He also said that Rock Racing is complying with the terms of the contract.

“This is not a decision governed by the agreement,” Ball said. “There is no open investigation. AEG is acting irrationally, to the detriment of the sport.”

At AEG’s press conference, Messick said that he and Ball had ridden together earlier Saturday morning, at a Davis Phinney Foundation event, and had discussed the situation.

“While we have an enormous amount in common, including our passion for sport and our hopes for sport, and what we think is required, it’s fair to say we differ on a number of issues,” Messick said. “And I should say the specific nature of our disagreements are going to stay between Michael and (me).”

However, following Ball’s press release, the war of words continued as Messick said he was “disappointed in Rock Racing’s disingenuous statements regarding the composition and eligibility of their team in our race.”

“We have communicated our rules to Rock Racing, and to the other 16 participating teams, numerous times and in plain language,” he said. “Rock Racing, like the other teams, agreed to the rules of our race. While we are not unsympathetic to the individuals involved, our rules are absolutely clear and designed for the betterment of our sport. For this or any other sport to be fair, everyone must follow the same rules. We hope that we can all focus our attention of this excellent bike race, which is about to begin.”

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