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By Andrew Hood
Lance Armstrong’s comeback seems to have fueled ambitions in others who’ve hung up the cleats but are now having second thoughts.
Dutch rider Michael Boogerd and Spanish climber Joseba Beloki both say they’re open to returning, but Jan Ullrich says he isn’t interested in re-entering the fray.
“If a team called and they’re serious, I would consider a return,” the 36-year-old Boogerd told Dutch TV. “If I got serious about training, I could be back at a top level pretty fast. I don’t know if a comeback is possible, but because my knee injury forced my departure from the sport, I didn’t leave the way I wanted to.”
Ullrich, meanwhile, says he is surprised Armstrong plans to return to competition, but adds that at 34 he is not tempted to join him.
“I am surprised at the news, but I think it is a good thing. If he starts the race, I think it will be exciting for the Tour,” Ullrich told Germany’s Bild. “When he attacks, the others will have to hold on. He will not be returning to win second place.”
Ullrich has kept a low profile since his forced departure before the start of the 2006 Tour for links to controversial Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes as part of the Operación Puerto doping scandal.
Ullrich, winner of the 1997 Tour and five times runner-up, was later fired by his T-Mobile team and has not returned to racing.
“At the moment, I am just enjoying time with my young son Max. In all honesty I have no urge to return,” Ullrich said. “I have other plans in life and I am not missing anything. I am happy with my life. You should never say never, but it is not something I have thought about. We have different stories, he retired after a victory, I retired after a disappointment. I wish him luck and I will call him over the next few days.”
Beloki turned up at the start of Thursday’s stage at the Vuelta a España in Burgos looking trim.
Beloki’s career ended in 2006 when Liberty Seguros collapsed in the wake of the Puerto investigation and he’s since not been able to find a team that will sign him.
The three-time Tour podium man turned 35 last month, but he told VeloNews that he’s still training 25 hours a week to keep fit. Beloki is still holding out that a team will give him a chance to return to cycling.
“If I had an offer, I’d come back tomorrow. My career didn’t end the way I wanted it to,” Beloki said. “I wouldn’t be the same Beloki from 2002 and 2003, but I could be a rider like Chechu Rubiera or Iñigo Cuesta who works for a team captain. Armstrong’s comeback fills me with hope that maybe I too can return.”
Beloki joined a legion of riders whose careers have suffered in the wake of the Puerto investigation. While Spanish police uncovered a widespread blood doping ring in May 2006, it didn’t effectively provide evidence of which riders were clearly implicated.
Dozens of Spanish riders have seen their careers go on the skids due to links to Puerto while others who were implicated have continued to race.
A Spanish judge is reviewing an appeal. Alleged ringleader Fuentes may face fines, but no Spanish racers will face legal charges for languishing investigation.
Beloki denies he worked with Fuentes and said he wants to end his career on his terms.
“It’s been an unfair ‘stop’ of my career. I was never sanctioned. I’ve never been implicated by a court. I was never identified by a judge to be on any Puerto list,” Beloki said. “We’ve been asking for two years for the courts to let us defend ourselves and for them to show us evidence, but there’s nothing.”
Beloki, who also suffered a career-threatening injury when he crashed out of the 2003 Tour with a broken femur, elbow and wrist, said he’s turned down offers to race in Portugal.
“I’ve had no serious offer. My only real offer came when (Alexander) Vinokourov called me in 2007 to join Astana, but once it hit the press, it blew up,” Beloki said. “I don’t want to race in Portugal on a miserable salary in unimportant races. I want to be a big team with a normal calendar.”
Beloki says teams are afraid to sign him because they saw what happened to other riders who were linked to Puerto. Riders such as Francisco Mancebo or Oscar Sevilla have been barred from racers or their teams have been left out of events due to the alleged Puerto links.
Since his forced retirement, Beloki says he’s been training hard and working with young riders near his home in Vitoria.
“I didn’t leave my career the way I wanted to,” he said. “There’s always something inside me that I didn’t leave the sport the way I wanted to. I just want to chance to come back and race like anyone else.”