End of the road for Phonak

Andrew Hood /

Landis affair final straw for beleaguered Swiss team

By Andrew Hood

Rihs celebrates in Paris with Floyd Landis in what turned out to be the calm before a fatal storm.
Rihs celebrates in Paris with Floyd Landis in what turned out to be the calm before a fatal storm.

Photo: AFP

Floyd Landis might be able to keep his Tour de France crown if he wins his doping case in arbitration, but his Phonak team won’t be around next season even if he does. Team owner Andy Rihs announced Tuesday that Phonak will fold at the end of the 2006 season after its new title sponsor pulled out of the deal in the wake of Landis doping scandal.

Rihs said the Landis case was the final straw in his growing frustration over doping controversies that have dogged the team for more than two seasons. “As a passionate cycling fan, I am bitterly disappointed that the sport of cycling has apparently become a synonym for doping,” Rihs said in a statement during a press conference Tuesday morning in Zürich. “I truly regret this development and it has brought me to the decision of disbanding the Phonak team at the end of 2006.”

The troubled Swiss team – stung by a string of doping controversies that include the 2004 blood doping cases of Tyler Hamilton and Santi Pérez – will continue racing through the 2006 season, but riders and staff have been told they should search for new jobs. “We will never enter a team in the Tour de France again,” team manager John Lelangue said in a press conference.

“What Landis does is up to him.” Rihs said new title sponsor iShares – the San Francisco-based online investment service owned by Barclay’s – balked on its commitment to take over as a team sponsor for the 2007-09 seasons after Landis tested positive for irregular levels of testosterone in urine samples taken after winning the Tour’s 17th stage. Rihs said he has since worked “day and night” to try to find a new sponsor, but the uncertainty of the team’s ProTour license, set for renewal at the end of this season, also hastened his decision to end the team’s seven-year run.

“Three weeks ago, we were the winners of the Tour de France, we were overjoyed, the sponsors were queuing up to join us … and then suddenly this blow,” Rihs said. “Today I see myself forced to do something I have never done in my whole life as a businessman: I have given up.”

Landis, 30, has vehemently denied he cheated to win the Tour, but he could become the first Tour victor to have his title stripped for doping charges. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has opened disciplinary procedures against him after he failed post-stage urine tests en route to winning into Morzine.

Dogged by doping
The Landis scandal proved one too many for Rihs, an amiable Swiss entrepreneur whose passion for cycling prompted him to spend millions of dollars to attract cycling’s top stars to his team. Rihs started the team in 1999 under the Phonak banner, the hearing aid company he owns. Some criticized Rihs for being too soft on his riders and staff and for turning a blind eye to early doping allegations. Following the disastrous 2004 season – when former world champion Oscar Camenzind tested positive for EPO and Olympic time trial champion Hamilton and Vuelta runner-up Pérez both tested positive for illegal blood transfusions – Rihs fired the team’s manager and sport director in an effort to clean house.

In 2005, Rihs brought in former Tour de France official John Lelangue as manager and experienced Spanish director Juan Fernández, who helped steer Festina through troubled waters following the synonymous doping scandal in 1998. The team also instituted strict, internal testing to augment UCI doping controls and even fired Spanish rider Santos González, who was sitting in the top 10 in the final week of the Vuelta, for returning irregular readings in team-conducted blood tests.

Phonak only earned its entrée into the 20-team ProTour league following a lengthy legal appeal. But troubles continued in 2006, first with Swiss rider Sascha Urweider, who was fired in February and banned by the Swiss Olympic federation for two years after he also tested positive for excess testosterone. Giro runner-up José Enrique Gutiérrez and Santiago Botero were both dropped from the team in early June after their names appeared in media reports linking them to the ongoing “Operación Puerto” doping investigation in Spain.

Landis lands in trouble
That didn’t dim the team’s optimism and Landis entered the 2006 Tour as a dark horse outsider to succeed Lance Armstrong’s seven-year run in the yellow jersey. The ex-mountain biker grabbed the lead in the Pyrénées, but his team confounded traditional tactics and let Spanish rider Oscar Pereiro ride nearly 30 minutes ahead in a transition stage into Montélimar to gain the maillot jaune. Despite heavy criticism, Phonak’s tactic seemed to work when Landis regained the lead on the climbing stage up Alpe d’Huez.

The next day, however, Landis struggled on Stage 16, a difficult day that finished atop La Toussuire. Landis lost nearly 10 minutes on the final climb and plummeted from first to 11th in the overall standings. It was one of the most dramatic collapses ever experienced by a rider in the yellow jersey. Most pundits wrote him off, but the next day Landis rode miraculously in the final, five-climb stage across the Alps to win an epic solo ride to Morzine.

Landis found himself back in contention with an effort that many called the most dramatic comeback in the Tour’s history. Post-stage urine samples, however, later revealed an irregular testosterone/epitestosterone ratio. Epitestosterone, a seemingly benign hormone, is generally produced by the body at the same rate as testosterone. Normally, an adult male would have a ratio of 1:1. Landis showed a T/E ratio of 11:1, well above the 4:1 allowed under international anti-doping rules.

Later analysis, using a carbon isotope ratio test, suggested that the testosterone was from an external source. Landis would later make up the differences in the final time trial and ride into Paris triumphant as only the third American to win the Tour. Three days later, the UCI released a statement saying a Tour rider had come back with an “adverse analytical finding.” Thirty-six hours later, Landis was revealed to be the rider in question and was eventually fired after his counter-analysis came back positive.

Landis, meanwhile, continues to insist that he didn’t cheat and has hired high-profile lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic to prepare his defense.


This message was posted on Phonak’s web site Tuesday morning …

Team owner Andy Rihs withdraws from pro cycling. After carefully examining all the alternatives, he will disband the Phonak Cycling Team
at the end of the year.

The deciding factor in this decision is the doping case of team captain Floyd Landis.

“As a passionate cyclist, I am bitterly disappointed that the sport of cycling apparently has become a synonym for doping. I truly regret this development and it has brought me to the decision of disbanding the Phonak Cycling Team per the end of 2006,” Andy Rihs explains the reason for his decision. He has done everything possible to avoid any doping cases in his team and had even introduced the strictest controls internally of all ProTour teams. Nevertheless, the fatal solo initiative of one rider could not be avoided.

”For this reason, today I see myself forced to do something I have never done in my whole life as a businessman: I have given up!”Rihs said and emphasized that this decision has been very difficult for him.

“I am particularly sorry for our young promising Swiss riders who share no guilt in this development, as well as for the competent staff members.

“The team offered numerous young as well as experienced Swiss and international riders the opportunity of participating in the sport of cycling at its highest level over the last seven years.

“I deeply regret that I can no longer do this in the future.”

Together with the team management, Rihs intensively looked for alternatives over the last several days. However, after careful consideration and examination of all possibilities, it has become clear that successor solutions for the Phonak Cycling Team are not possible – for financial reasons and also due to the uncertainty with regard to the renewal of the ProTour license that expires at the end of this year. Rihs came to an agreement with the new global title sponsor iShares regarding an early termination of the title sponsorship contract. The team will continue to participate in all the races scheduled for the remainder of 2006. The riders will thus have the opportunity of presenting themselves as valid candidates for other teams. Also, Rihs will support– wherever possible – the employees, in particular the young Swiss riders, in their searches for new jobs.

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