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Tour de France

Valverde’s Tour future uncertain

Alejandro Valverde could barely enjoy his victory Sunday at the Dauphiné Libéré when the questions started again: will he or won’t he be at the start line in Monaco on July 4 for the 2009 Tour de France? Since May, Valverde is banned for two years from racing in Italy for what authorities say is clear evidence linking him to the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal. The year’s Tour dips into Italy for about 80km during stage 16, enough to likely torpedo Valverde’s hopes for a shot at the Tour podium despite being arguably in the best form of his career.

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By Andrew Hood

Valverde still wants a shot at that other yellow jersey.

Valverde still wants a shot at that other yellow jersey.

Photo: Agence France Presse

Alejandro Valverde could barely enjoy his victory Sunday at the Dauphiné Libéré when the questions started again: will he or won’t he be at the start line in Monaco on July 4 for the 2009 Tour de France?

Since May, Valverde is banned for two years from racing in Italy for what authorities say is clear evidence linking him to the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal.

The year’s Tour dips into Italy for about 80km during stage 16, enough to likely torpedo Valverde’s hopes for a shot at the Tour podium despite being arguably in the best form of his career.

With the Tour starting in less than three weeks, Valverde seems resigned to the fact that he probably won’t be racing.

“Right now, everything is out of my hands, but I still hope to race the Tour,” Valverde said Sunday. “Now I will focus on the Spanish national championships and see what happens about the Tour.”

Valverde’s fate is now in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It’s not known how soon CAS will rule on the case, but it could take months, a delay that would effectively keep Valverde out of this year’s Tour.

Valverde’s legal team is challenging the decision by Italian authorities (CONI) to apply a two-year ban.

In addition to protesting their client’s innocence, Valverde’s lawyers also insist that only national sport federations have the right to issue racing bans on their respective athletes, arguing that it’s incorrect for Italians to dish out justice to a Spanish rider.

So far, the Spanish cycling federation has been blocked from trying to use evidence gathered in the Puerto investigation by a Spanish judge, who is still considering the case for its legal merit.

Valverde has been denying he’s Valv.Piti (one of the numerous nicknames found in the Puerto dossier) ever since the scandal broke in May 2006 and he continues to say he’s never worked with alleged ringleader Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.

Others say Valverde is not involved, including Spanish sports minister Jaime Lissavetzky, who say the Spanish government is quietly supporting efforts by Valverde’s legal team to overturn the Italian ban.

His latest troubles date back to last year’s Tour de France, when Italian authorities took blood samples from Valverde when the Tour ended a stage at Prato Nevoso on the Italian side of the Alps.

DNA sampling later matched those samples to one of the bags of blood – the infamous bag No. 18 ? confiscated by Spanish police during the Puerto raids in 2006. CONI officials also say that the bag identified to be Valverde’s also tested for traces of the banned blood booster EPO.

CONI ruled that the evidence provided a clear link between Valverde and Fuentes, and issued a two-year ban within Italy.

Italian riders Ivan Basso and Michele Scarponi each received racing bans from CONI after they admitted they worked with Fuentes. Both returned to competition last year, with Scarponi winning two stages at the recent Giro d’Italia.

So far, Valverde had denied working with alleged Puerto ringleader Fuentes in doping practices.

Valverde turned pro in 2002 with Kelme, the Spanish team where Fuentes worked as team doctor until 2005. Valverde switched to Caisse d’Epargne (then called Illes Balears) after the 2004 season.

To make things more complicated for Valverde, the UCI has joined CONI in the CAS appeal and might try to extend the racing ban worldwide. If that happens, Valverde might be sidelined until the 2011 season.

Last week, while Valverde was racing the Dauphiné Libéré in France, French sports minister Bernard Laporte said Valverde and Tom Boonen, who tested positive for cocaine in an out-of-competition test this spring, “are not welcome to the Tour de France of 2009.”

Tour officials last week said it’s unlikely Valverde would race the Tour this year unless CAS overrules the CONI decision.

In the meantime, officials at Caisse d’Epargne are sticking by their man, with team manager Eusebio Unzue saying that Valverde has withstood the pressure and been able to keep racing.

“The whole process is incomprehensible. (CONI) is linking this to Basso’s case and one doesn’t have anything to do with the other. Valverde’s innocence has been demonstrated from five years ago,” Unzue told El Diario Vasco. “The UCI has his medical files, all the tests, everything. This year, he’s done more than 20 controls. Last year, more than 30. They’ve done whatever they’ve wanted, whenever they’ve wanted. What more does he have to do? What can we do?”

Valverde, meanwhile, won’t have a race to distract his attention anymore.

“I try not to let my feelings show, but it’s true that I feel angry,” he said. “Everything that is happening is an injustice, but I confide that the truth will prevail, sooner or later. Now all I can do is wait.”

The truth, just like anything associated with the Puerto scandal, has not been easy to nail down.