By Andrew Hood
Beleaguered Italian rider Ivan Basso has removed himself from his two-year contract with the Discovery Channel team at his own request just days ahead of a hearing before the Italian Olympic committee for alleged links to the Operación Puerto doping investigation.
Basso requested to meet with sport director Johan Bruyneel and general manager Bill Stapleton on Sunday. In a press release issued Monday, Basso said the decision to leave the American team was his.
“This was a very difficult decision, for me and my family, but I think it is the right thing to do. Johan, Bill and my teammates have always believed in me and shown me great respect. This decision is my way of showing them that same respect,” Basso said in a team statement. “The team is trying to find a new sponsor and win bike races, and my situation is a distraction to both of those goals.
“It is important that everyone knows this was 100 percent my decision. Nobody asked me to leave. I am grateful to all of the staff and riders and wish them the best of luck.”
Basso’s world was thrown into chaos in early April when German authorities used DNA samples to match nine blood bags found among the nearly 200 confiscated in police raids last May to 1997 Tour de France champion Jan Ullrich.
In light of the startling discovery, Italian authorities re-opened an investigation into allegations that Basso may have been linked to the blood-doping ring. Officials are expected to ask Basso to give DNA samples to match against seven bags identified with codenames “No. 2” and “Birillo” that authorities allege could belong to the defending Giro d’Italia champion.
Basso is scheduled to appear before CONI officials in Rome on Wednesday.
The prospect of DNA testing came just as Discovery Channel is searching for a new title sponsor to take over the team for the 2008 season. The team had suspended Basso from competition until the new investigation was completed.
The Italian was among nine riders kicked out of last year’s Tour de France after their names appeared in police documents as part of the Puerto investigation. Last fall, however, Italian authorities cleared Basso for a lack of substantial evidence.
“Ivan’s request was unexpected and he was very emotional, but adamant, about his decision to be released,” Bruyneel said in a team statement. “We spoke with him at length before granting his request. Although he was only on our team for a short time, he was a great leader and a very well respected and selfless teammate. I, along with the entire team, wish him the best.” Tailwind Sports general manager Bill Stapleton said there are no regrets about signing Basso despite the potential negative fallout surrounding the Puerto case.
Stapleton expressed his confidence in the team’s ability to carry on without the 2005 Tour runner-up, whom many called the successor to Lance Armstrong. “Ivan was a great addition to our team and I am very sad to see him go,” Stapleton said in a team release. “He was one of our leaders and we expected big things from him this season.
“However, this team has 15 wins in 2007 and we have great depth and talent on our roster. We will continue to win and be competitive in all of our races, including the Tour De France.
“When we signed Ivan, all the necessary governing authorities had cleared him. He deserved a team and we had always wanted to sign him. We did our due diligence and we have no regrets.”