By Neal Rogers
The exclusion of Astana from any events hosted by the Amaury Sport Organization in 2008, including the Tour de France, put Amgen Tour of California organizer AEG in an unusual situation.
This year’s race kicks off Sunday and marks the first U.S. appearance by the new Astana team of defending Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer.
Like current Tour de France champion Alberto Contador and American Chris Horner, Leipheimer was not part of the scandal-plagued Astana squad of 2007, yet has been denied the opportunity to compete in this year’s editions of Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour de France.
On January 22 Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, announced an aggressive anti-doping initiative that will see every participant in the race have their blood tested, with the results incorporated into the UCI’s Biological Passport program. Riders, both targeted and selected at random, will be given daily urine screenings for steroids, hormones (such as EPO), stimulants and various masking agents. Furthermore, AEG declared that any riders or team staff with an open doping investigation – as defined by USA Cycling or the UCI – would not be allowed at the race. AEG expects to announce team rosters for the Amgen Tour of California on Thursday.
Following the news of Astana’s exclusion from ASO events, Messick spoke with VeloNews Wednesday about the decision and the Tour of California’s position as a race organization both trying to combat doping while welcoming Astana and its defending Tour of California champion.
“We have good relations with the Amaury Sport Organization,” Messick said. “We talk to them often. And for them I think this represents a strong step for race owners, for those who organize races and take the risk, to do what they believe is required to protect the integrity of their race. It’s a very difficult decision to not allow your defending champion to defend his title, but I think the ASO feels even more strongly that to preserve the integrity of cycling and the integrity of the Tour de France, they need to make a statement.”
Asked if AEG had considered not inviting Astana to its race, Messick said AEG and Medalist Sports had been careful “in thinking about all the teams that we invited.”
“Ultimately we concluded that the combination of us wanting to have Levi, a California native and the defending champion, and the assurances by Astana team management about the new direction they’re taking, for us that was enough,” Messick said. “We are, however, watching what all of the teams that are participating in the race are doing. We’re watching very carefully, and we are going to do what is right for our race.”
Messick said he could empathize with both sides of the Astana/ASO debate.
“I can understand why [Astana riders] would be frustrated and disappointed,” he said. “I can understand why the ASO did what they did. It’s a tough one, it really is — especially if Astana has turned over a new leaf and has decided to do all of the things that a modern, progressive team needs to do to earn the trust of the media, fans, sponsors, etcetera. Then it’s tough for them. But at the same time professional cycling requires the big races to work. And consequently, I think the three grand tours in Europe are starting to flex their muscles a bit. And as race organizers we can understand what they are doing, and why they are doing it.”
In its brief two-year history the Tour of California has yet to feel the pain of a positive drug test. The race did, however, fall under scrutiny for failing to test for EPO at the inaugural edition, an irony that title sponsor Amgen, manufacturer of EPO, was none too pleased about. Messick added that AEG’s 2008 anti-doping initiative was implemented, in part, because of the pains the Tour de France has experienced over the past few years.
“[We wanted] to do everything in our power to prevent that from happening to us,” Messick said. “We understand the damage that it did to the Tour de France, and we understand the frustration, and frankly the anger, that the senior guys at ASO feel about what happened. We are responding, in some sense, to their experience. We are resolute and determined to do what is required to make sure we don’t have a similar situation.”
“One of the things we are trying to get across is that part of the reason this stuff is happening in cycling today is because people in cycling really are trying to clean up the sport. All the way from the race organizers to the teams and the athletes, we really are trying to drive the cheats out. To do that, you have to test a lot of people, you have to catch some guys, and you have to have serious penalties. The sport is fighting the good fight, and we need to remember that part of the reason we are in this is because we are not turning a blind eye to what is going on.”
Asked how participating teams have received AEG’s anti-doping initiative, Messick said, “By and large it was an enormously positive step. We didn’t have squawk from teams, we didn’t have squawk from riders. I think there is a commonly and broadly shared understanding of the trouble the sport is in. And I believe there is a commonly shared view of what is required to regain the trust of our fans, and of the media, and of sponsors, and of the others who are involved in the sport. I believe that everyone realizes that we all have a role to play, and that we have to work a little bit harder to prove to people that the sport is fair and clean.”