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Belkin removes sport director Blijlevens after EPO confession

Jeroen Blijlevens was named in the French Senate report of riders that used EPO during the 1998 Tour de France

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AFP) — Belkin Pro Cycling is parting company with its sport director, former Dutch rider Jeroen Blijlevens, after he was named in a report into doping at the 1998 Tour de France, the team said Thursday.

“Belkin Pro Cycling and Jeroen Blijlevens are going their separate ways with immediate effect,” a statement said after he was named, along with other top cyclists, as having used banned blood-booster erythropoetin (EPO) in the controversial 1998 race.

“The reason for this decision is Jeroen Blijlevens’ admission of doping made today during a meeting with management following the publication of the French Senate’s report,” the statement said.

Belkin was formerly known as Rabobank, which ended its 17-year sponsorship of professional cycling last October, saying that the sport had been irrevocably damaged by a succession of doping cases, including within the Rabobank team.

“The team places great importance on values of transparency and trust and cannot see, given these new developments, any future for Blijlevens in the team,” the squad said of the 41-year-old who ended his 10-year racing career in 2004.

Blijlevens, who won four Tour stages from 1995 to 1998, signed a document earlier this year stating he had never doped, despite the possibility of facing only a six-month suspension if he had confessed.

“Our team was looking for a new sponsor,” Blijlevens said in an open letter published along with the statement. “I decided to use EPO for the first time during the Tour in 1997.”

The fallout continued south of the Pyrénées, where Abraham Olano was sacked from his job as technical director at the Vuelta a España.

Olano, 43, was among several Spanish riders who tested positive for traces of EPO during the 1998 Tour. Olano abandoned that Tour, and went on to win the Vuelta and the world time trial title that year.

On Wednesday, Olano was less than forthright, telling the Spanish media he was “surprised” and felt as if he had done “nothing illegal.”

On Thursday morning, he was called into the office of Vuelta director Javier Guillén, who decided to rescind Olano’s contract as technical director of the Spanish grand tour.

Tour de France owner ASO holds a controlling interest in the Vuelta.

Speaking to the Spanish daily AS, Olano expressed his regret.

“I am very hurt,” he said. “I understand that ASO is a large part French, because if not, I wouldn’t be able to understand any of this. I have to study my case with my lawyers … but the damage is done, and it would be hard to go back.”

Unipublic, the Vuelta’s holding company, said in a public statement that the news out of France required it to act, citing its commitment to the “fight against doping.”

Olano will be missed at the Vuelta, where one of his primary duties was to design the route each year. The Vuelta has grown in prestige over the past five years following a series of interesting, challenging course selections.

There was no word on his immediate replacement.

European correspondent Andrew Hood contributed to this report.