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Is Phonak’s future in doubt? Rihs plans a press conference

There’s growing uncertainty about the future of the Phonak team following the Floyd Landis doping scandal and rumors are flying that the team’s new title sponsor – iShares – has pulled the plug on its commitment to take over the squad in 2007. Andy Rihs, the Swiss magnate who owns the beleaguered team, has scheduled a press conference this week as Landis faces the real possibility of having his Tour de France victory stripped away. Rihs and team manager John Lelangue are scheduled to outline the team's future at an 11 a.m. press conference in Zurich, but until then most riders and staff

By Andrew Hood

There’s growing uncertainty about the future of the Phonak team following the Floyd Landis doping scandal and rumors are flying that the team’s new title sponsor – iShares – has pulled the plug on its commitment to take over the squad in 2007.

Andy Rihs, the Swiss magnate who owns the beleaguered team, has scheduled a press conference this week as Landis faces the real possibility of having his Tour de France victory stripped away.

Rihs and team manager John Lelangue are scheduled to outline the team’s future at an 11 a.m. press conference in Zurich, but until then most riders and staff expect to be in the dark.

“Andy Rihs is holding a press conference on Tuesday, that’s all we know right now,” said Phonak sport director Juan Fernandez. “He’s going to announce the future of the team. No one knows what’s going to happen.”

The team’s ambiguous future was definitely on the lips of riders and staff at the start of Saturday’s Clásica San Sebastián. Ryder Hesjedal and Pat McCarty, both set to ride with Phonak next season, said they weren’t sure what’s going to happen with the team.

“I have a contract for next year, but we don’t know what’s going on,” McCarty said. “We all hope the team continues. I want to keep racing the rest of this season because I might have to find another team.”

iShares – the San Francisco-based online investment service owned by Barclay’s – announced in mid-June it would take over as title sponsor for the 2007 season, but has remained mum since Landis’ positive anti-doping control.

There is no mention of the Landis doping scandal on iShare’scycling web link and Landis and his eight teammates from the Tour squad were all signed to contract extensions to stay with the team immediately following Landis’ overall Tour victory.

Landis, meanwhile, has been making the wrong kind of headlines since returning irregular levels of testosterone in urine samples taken after his dramatic stage victory into Morzine that catapulted him back into contention.

Landis has vehemently denied he cheated, but he could become the first Tour winner to have his victory stripped away due to a doping violation (the top four finishers in the 1904 Tour – the second ever held – were disqualified for cheating).

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has opened disciplinary action and Landis faces a two-year racing ban (and another two-year ban before returning to a ProTour team) as well as loss of his Tour crown.

Phonak has been heavily criticized following the Landis affair and there have been calls from some quarters that the entire Swiss-based team should be banned from cycling.

Phonak has had several high-profile doping cases the past few seasons, including blood doping bans against Tyler Hamilton and Santi Pérez in late 2004. Earlier that year, former world champion Oscar Camenzind tested positive for EPO, a violation to which he confessed and then promptly retired from the sport.

The team has formally cut off all ties to Landis following the confirmation of the counter-analysis last week. Citing the ProTour Ethics Code, the team fired him immediately and also said it would not be involved in Landis’ legal challenge.

The team issued the following statement on its web page last week:

“Team owner Andy Rihs deeply regrets this development. At present, he is clarifying with all parties involved what consequences this may have for his company ARcycling AG, the operator of the Phonak Cycling Team,” the statement read. “Andy Rihs and team manager John Lelangue will make in-depth statements regarding this matter at a media conference to be held in the next couple of days.”