By Andrew Hood
The latest Tour de France doping scandal involving stage-winner Mikel Astarloza could jeopardize the future of one of Spain’s few remaining top professional teams.
According to reports in the Spanish media, Astarloza’s provisional suspension for failing an out-of-competition control for the banned blood booster EPO could threaten financial backing of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team.
The Spanish sports daily AS reported that sponsors are taking a harder look following a recent spate of doping scandals at supporting the unique Basque team, funded and staffed by businesses and riders from Spain’s Basque Country.
Last week, the UCI suspended Astarloza, winner of stage 16 in the recent Tour, after he tested positive for EPO in an out-of-competition control June 26. Also in June, Iñigo Landaluze tested positive for the third-generation EPO CERA during this year’s Dauphiné Libéré.
The two high-profile cases come on the heels of other recent scandals involving team riders and staff.
In 2001, rider Txema del Olmo tested positive for EPO and was fired. Team doctor Jesus Losa was implicated in the Cofidis Affaire in 2004 and later fired. In 2005, Aitor González tested positive for anabolic steroids which he insisted came from nutritional products he was taking.
Team officials, however, are sticking by Astarloza’s declarations of innocence and are waiting for the results of the follow-up B-samples before discussing the future of one of its star riders.
“The team, after not finding any anomalies in all of its internal controls, and the declaration of innocence by the rider, stands by the racer and supports his innocence until it can be demonstrated otherwise,” a team statement read. “At the same time, Astarloza declares his complete innocence of this potential violation of anti-doping rules and confides that the ‘B’ sample will prove him right and justice will be made in this unfortunate case.”
Founded in 1994, Euskaltel-Euskadi is unique in that all the riders must be Basque or very strong links to the Basque Country that straddles the Pyrénées between France and Spain. In fact, reigning Olympic road champion Samuel Sánchez is the only current rider who isn’t Basque.
The team often picks its riders from the teeming talent pool in the Basque Country, one of Europe’s cycling hotbeds and the place where most of Spain’s top amateurs go early in their careers to cut their teeth before turning pro.
Euskaltel-Euskadi is one of the few remaining top teams registered and sponsored by Spanish backers, but the embarrassing doping scandals could be putting the squeeze on support for the orange-clad team.
A recent change in regional government and back-to-back doping positives involving Astarloza and Landaluze this summer could see funding challenges for the team in 2010, AS reported.
The squad’s 6 million Euro budget is backed by Euskaltel, the regional telecommunications service provider, as well as funding from local and regional Basque governing bodies. Fans also buy subscriptions to support the team as well.
Spanish cycling has been battered recently by a series of doping scandals, leaving only shreds of the sport’s glory days dating back to the 1990s.
Roberto Heras was stripped of his 2005 Vuelta a España crown after testing positive for EPO and the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal of 2006 saw dozens of Spanish riders implicated in the ongoing investigation.
Liberty Seguros and Kelme – two Spanish-based teams linked to the Puerto scandal – both dissolved in the wake of police investigations into the alleged doping ring organized by Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes and other associates.
Saunier Duval – another Spanish team – was racked by the doping positives of Riccardo Riccò and Leonardo Piepoli in last year’s Tour de France. Reorganized as Fuji-Servetto, the team won a challenge to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to be able to start the Vuelta a España later this month.
Caisse d’Epargne, though based in Spain with the same management group that dates back to the Banesto golden years, is backed by a French bank.
Many are hopeful the rise of Alberto Contador will spur a resurgence of Spanish cycling, but cases like Astarloza’s certainly won’t help.