'I am not Urko,' insists Tour runner-up
By Andrew Hood
The rumors have been floating around for months that “Urko” — one of the infamous codenames found in the Operación Puerto dossier — could belong to Spanish rider Oscar Pereiro.
No one dared touch it except a few anonymous web sites until Il Giornale, an Italian newspaper in Milan, published a story Wednesday without naming sources linking Pereiro to bags of blood with the pseudonym found in police raids last May.
An angry Pereiro blasted the allegations Friday and said he would quit cycling if he’s forced to provide DNA samples to prove his innocence.
“I have never spoken with Eufemiano Fuentes,” Pereiro told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “It’s unfair that cyclists have to prove our innocence. I am ready to do anything, but if I have to use DNA to demonstrate my innocence, I will leave cycling, because it’s obvious that cycling like that isn’t worth it.”
Runner-up in last year’s Tour de France, Pereiro could inherit Floyd Landis’s crown if the American fails in his bid to clear his name of doping allegations in a disciplinary hearing that started this week in Malibu.
The Puerto investigation continues to haunt cycling after DNA samples linked nine blood bags to 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich. Earlier this month, 2006 Giro champion Ivan Basso admitted working with alleged Puerto ringleader Fuentes.
The Puerto file is full of nicknames, some clearly linked to riders. The others that aren’t has led to a high-stakes game of deduction among insiders and journalists have begun printing names without substantiation.
“Birillo” turned out to be Basso, “Zapatero” was recently confessed Italian rider Michele Scarponi and “Hijo de Rudicio” was Ullrich. Pereiro says he’s not “Urko.”
“I’m disgusted at this pathetic journalism that some practice, that they repeat rumors to promote a lie,” Pereiro said. “Someone says that Urko is a mythological dog from Galicia, when in reality the name of this animal is written with a ‘c’ – Urco. Urko with a ‘k’ is a hill in the Basque Country.”
UCI president Pat McQuaid told VeloNews he has not seen any evidence linking Pereiro to the Puerto investigation and suggested the Italian media is trumping up charges to support Basso.
“The Italians also reported there are 49 new names in Puerto and that’s not true,” McQuaid said. “The Italians are doing everything trying to take the heat off Basso and implicate others.”
The story broke just as Pereiro’s Caisse d’Epargne team has been fending off other allegations linking riders Alejandro Valverde and Ruben Plaza to the Puerto scandal. The team removed Plaza and Constantino Zaballa from its Giro lineup because of doubts over alleged links to the Puerto case.
“All these rumors are being reported in the media, but there is no proof,” Caisse d’Epargne sport director José Luis Jaimerena told VeloNews. “If there is some proof, we would take action. Valverde is not linked to Puerto and now all this about Pereiro. They are just rumors. We don’t know if there’s something behind all this or not.”
Earlier this week, team manager José Miguel Echavarri huddled with Caisse d’Epargne representatives to assure its title sponsor that the team is not implicated.
On Thursday, the team released a statement defending Valverde and Plaza, and said that all the team’s riders would give DNA samples if authorities demanded them.
Pereiro angrily rejected those calls Friday and said he’s ready to skip this year’s Tour de France.
“I don’t know what’s happening, but I have to say in the last Tour, I was the smartest one. I went away in a breakaway and I gained back a half hour,” he said. “If they don’t want me to race in the Tour, they should clearly tell me. Cycling doesn’t end with the Tour de France. If they don’t let me start, that’s no big deal, I will stay here and race the Vuelta a España.”
Pereiro is scheduled to race the Volta a Cataluyna on Monday.