By Andrew Hood

Beloki, leaving the Tour last month
Beloki, leaving the Tour last month

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Five Astaná riders who were forced out of the 2006 Tour de France because of alleged links to a blood doping investigation have been formally cleared by Spanish courts.

Joseba Beloki, Isidro Nozal, Sergio Paulinho, Allan Davis and Alberto Contador have all received a written document officially clearing them of any links to the ongoing “Operación Puerto,” the Spanish newspaper El Diario Vasco reported Wednesday.

The five riders received a legal document signed by Manuel Sánchez Martín, secretary for the Spanish court heading up the “Operación Puerto” investigation, stating, “there are not any type of charges against them nor have there been adopted any type of legal action against them.”

The five were among nine riders from four teams who were forced out of the 2006 Tour because of alleged links to controversial Spanish doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes.

Other riders forced out were pre-race favorites Jan Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla (T-Mobile), Ivan Basso (CSC) and Francisco Mancebo (Ag2r). Comunidad Valenciana lost its wild-card bid after one of its assistant sport directors was among five people detained in May.

Race officials and UCI representatives huddled before the start of the 93rd Tour to study evidence from a 39-page summary of a police investigation into alleged doping activities to make the extraordinary decision to eliminate any riders under the cloud of suspicion.

The remainder of the Astaná team, including pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov, were not allowed to start the 2006 Tour because banned riders were not allowed to be replaced. With only four riders remaining – Vinokourov, Andrei Kashechkin, Carlos Barredo and Luis León Sánchez – the team didn’t meet the six-man minimum requirement and they didn’t take the start.

According to El Diario Vasco, the riders can now make legal claims in Spanish courts against damages caused to them or their team.

The news circulated among the peloton before the Clásica de Ordizia in Spain on Tuesday. Astaná riders were not participating in the one-day race because of complaints from ex-sponsor Würth, which didn’t want its name on team jerseys after it pulled out of its sponsorship deal in the wake of the Tour expulsions.

The team is still officially registered as Astaná-Würth with the UCI ProTour and could face future complications as members of the Kazakh-backed sponsorship team are trying to acquire rights to the team from ex-manager Manolo Saíz, one of five people detained by Spanish authorities in May.

The news helped clear the way for Discovery Channel to sign Paulinho as part of three new riders, along with Levi Leipheimer and Thomas Vaitkus, joining the team for 2007.

Landis to Tour of Britain?
Floyd Landis might be facing career-threatening hip replacement surgery, but it’s not stopping him from making the most of what remains of the old one.

The Tour de France winner is busy racing in post-Tour criteriums this week in northern Europe and now officials from the Tour of Britain, set for Aug. 29-Sept. 3, are hoping that the 2006 Tour de France will line up for the top British stage race.

Phonak team officials said Landis’ participation might be possible as the team is confirmed to start, but Landis is set to race the Elk Grove criterium Aug. 13 in the Chicago area. He is expected to finalize the date of his hip replacement during his trip back to the United States.

“If the doctors set a date before September he will not ride in Britain, but if the date for the operation is later, he is highly likely to start the British Tour,” a Phonak team spokesman was quoted by the BBC.

Other riders already confirmed for the Tour of Britain include Michael Rogers, fresh off finishing in the top-10 at the Tour.

Valverde retains ProTour lead
Floyd Landis surged into second place in the UCI ProTour standings, but Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde retained the overall lead despite crashing out early in the Tour de France. Team CSC’s Frank Schleck, winner of the Amstel Gold Race in April, also moved up to third overall with a strong Tour showing that included 11th overall and a stage-win at Alpe d’Huez.

Valverde leads with 195 points, with Landis now second with 175 and Schleck with 150 in third. In the team rankings, Team CSC retained its lead to T-Mobile.

UCI ProTour rankings (after Tour de France)
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa), Caisse d’Epargne 195 points
2. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak 175
3. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC 150
4. Tom Boonen (Bel), Quick Step 145
5. Ivan Basso (Ita), CSC 138
6. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto 120
7. Christophe Moreau (Fra), Ag2r 118
8. Jorg Jaksche (Ger), Astana-Wurth, 110
9. Alessandro Ballan (Ita), Lampre 110
10. Damiano Cunego (Ita), 106

Milram for Hamburg
No rest for the weary as the big stars for the Vattenfall Cyclassics (formerly HEW), the first of two classics in August. The Clásica San Sebastián is set for Aug. 12.

Milram has already released its lineup for the one-day German race led by former winner Erik Zabel. Other riders include Daniel Becke, Mirko Celestino, Christian Knees, Enrico Poitschke, Marco Velo, Sebastian Siedler and Bjorn Schröder.

The also announced its signing Barloworld rider Igor Astarloa and Panaria’s Brett Lancaster to contracts for the 2007 season.