Vuelta director says ProTour talks at ‘point of no return’
By Andrew Hood
The 62nd Vuelta a España wasn’t without its controversies. Carlos Sastre accused race leader Denis Menchov of forming alliances. Universal criticism rained down on a long, boring 52km time trial in Zaragoza. Riders complained that the top-heavy course, with its most important stages packed into the opening 10 days, left for a dull and unexciting second half.
But one thing was largely missing from this year’s Spanish tour – doping scandals.
The Vuelta has been wracked by its fair share of doping controversies the past few years, including the disastrous EPO positive of 2005 winner Roberto Heras, who later saw his title stripped.
When 2006 winner Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for homologous blood doping during this year’s Tour de France, Vuelta officials knew they had to take serious action.
The race’s parent company – UniPublic – took the extraordinary step to spend 180,000 euros (about $250,000) to help fund an aggressive anti-doping program ahead of and during this year’s edition.
The extra cash helped the UCI fund a trap in August that read like something out of a spy novel. Anti-doping controllers flew to Turkey to hunt down Andrey Kashechkin, the Kazakh rider and Vinokourov teammate who finished third in the 2006 Vuelta.
Astana team officials admitted they didn’t even know where Kashechkin was, but the UCI found him, and thanks to money from the Vuelta organization, Kashechkin was also busted for homologous blood doping.
While there’s never any complete guarantee that some riders didn’t cheat, Vuelta director Victor Cordero said he believes this was the cleanest Vuelta in years.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood sat down with Cordero this weekend at the conclusion of the Vuelta to learn more about the Vuelta’s war against dopers. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: This year the Vuelta spent 180,000 euros on the fight against doping, how was that money spent?
Victor Cordero: We made a direct payment to the UCI of 30,000 euros in the month of August to carry out out-of-competition tests. Then there were a series of expenses, for example the plane that transported the samples directly to the lab in Lausanne, the costs of labs in Spain and other costs to actually carry out the anti-doping tests, we paid those expenses to the UCI and to the Spanish government. Later, all the costs of the anti-doping staff, the hotels, the flights, the six times the team of anti-doping controllers came to the race to carry out controls, we paid for those.
VN.com: This is a significant amount of money, why was it so important for the Vuelta to make that investment for clean racing?
VC: We all have to make an extra effort to assure the credibility of our sport. When this sport loses its credibility, it loses its value. The credibility is augmented more not so much in the controls during the race but the out-of-competition tests in the weeks before the Vuelta, because we all know that the cheating doesn’t occur during the race, but ahead of competition during the preparation. This was very important for us to make it during August. And you might have noticed that the ‘random’ tests no longer exist. The controls are now very selective.
VN.com: Can you say this has been the cleanest Vuelta in many years?
VC: We’ll, we have to wait a little bit, but I truly believe so. From what I’ve seen and from the parameters we’ve seen in the tests and including with the manner of racing we’ve seen, that is the case. Riders now realize they cannot risk cheating because they will get caught. In the idea that there are still a few bad apples that still don’t understand the risk they are running, now I believe there are very few of those left. And they will get caught. Even though we fight with the UCI about certain things, we are in complete agreement and harmony on this fight against doping.
VN.com: So it was the investment made by the Vuelta that led to Andrey Kashechkin being busted in Turkey in August for homologous blood doping?
VC: In the month of August, from August 1 to when the riders arrived in Vigo on Aug. 29, they made 106 surprise out-of-competition tests. All these were riders who were signed on to do the Vuelta, not riders who might be replacements, but riders we knew were going to race. On that list was Kashechkin. What’s true that the control against Kashechkin was very expensive. The UCI not only used our 30,000 euros, but they also made an investment of the same amount. It was part of this program that the trap fell on Kashechkin.
VN.com: That turned out to be a very good investment for the Vuelta, no?
VC: Ever since the trauma of Roberto Heras (who tested positive for EPO and had his 2005 title stripped), even the smallest things make me nervous. The Vuelta has paid the highest price for the cheaters. We have to do everything we can to prevent this from happening again. Last year, the Vuelta unfolded in a fair manner, then (Alexandre) Vinokourov did something stupid at the Tour. I believe the riders on the podium this year, and I don’t think I’m wrong in believing this, are riders who honestly know what’s at stake in this sport.
VN.com: On another subject, the UCI and the grand tours are now at a loggerheads, is there any chance of hammering out an agreement?
VC: We had a agreement with the UCI that until September 21 we would work to try to resolve the situation. We haven’t found a solution. Last week, the UCI made some proposals to each of the three big tours – they seemed similar but they were different to each of three races – and they sent it before September 21 to try to make an agreement. The ‘big three’ have told the UCI that we’re not in accord with what they proposed because it’s just more of the same that we continue with the ProTour, when the truth is we don’t want anything to do with the ProTour. The UCI have told us if there are no agreements that they will make a decision this week about the three grand tours. To be honest, I’ve been preoccupied with the race and I will study the theme a little more in depth in the coming days, but we are in the same line of the Giro and the Tour.
VN.com: There are suggestions that the ProTour will continue without the grand tours, what do you think of having a racing calendar without events such as the Tour or the Vuelta?
VC: I ask one question: okay, we can say the Vuelta is a big race, but how can you consider a racing calendar without having the Tour de France, when the Tour is the most important race in cycling? How can you make a ProTour with races that are being invited on paper right now as we speak? We don’t want to be in the ProTour for reasons we’ve said a thousand times. Leave us, the three grand tours with our 16 races, to negotiate directly with the teams that we want to participate in the events, but don’t try to impose on us rules of the ProTour series when we are not part of the ProTour.
VN.com: Have the grand tours arrived to the breaking point?
VC: We’ve reached the point of no return. This week we’ll know more about the situation. I cannot understand this situation and how we got here. And we’ve been going around this for three years already.
VN.com: Despite some complaints about some aspects of the race, are you satisfied with how the Vuelta unfolded?
VC: The taste in the mouth at the end of the race is very good. When the overall classification from the second to the fifth changed and with the stage of (Abantos) and (Ávila) have been truly spectacular.
The critics don’t hurt me. When people say that this Vuelta has been blander than previous editions, I don’t agree because a lot of riders have said it was very hard. What it might have missed was a harder summit finish in the last week, that much I can admit.
And the time trial at Zaragoza was too long (52km). That was something that I wanted to try, to add a long time trial like we see at the Tour de France. We have seen at the end of the season, that really proved too much. Had the time trial been 35km, which is the typical distance for a Vuelta time trial, Menchov would have still won the Vuelta the same. He was obviously the strongest. The criticism you have to accept, but I leave this Vuelta with a good flavor in my mouth.