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By Andrew Hood
Alberto Contador heard the bad news crackle on his earpiece early in Wednesday’s fourth stage at the Mallorca Challenge and then uncorked a rage-fueled solo attack across the rainy mountains.
The 25-year-old yelled with emotion to a Spanish television camera: “Astaná, en el Tour!” he said, defiantly grabbing his jersey. “Astaná, in the Tour!”
Pouring his frustration into his pedals was about all Contador could do in the face of ASO’s controversial decision to exclude Astaná from all of its events, including Paris-Nice and the Tour de France, two races he won in his breakout 2007 season.
“I was attacking today to claim back what is mine,” Contador explained when asked by VeloNews about the stage. “We deserve to be in the Tour de France. It’s a hard blow because I believe I could have won again.”
That question will likely go unanswered after ASO drove a stake into the heart of Contador’s chances of defending his title.
Contador’s youthful exuberance was gone under the weight of ASO’s unprecedented decision to eliminate the team of a standing Tour champion.
“We are just trying to make sense of this decision to keep the team out of the Tour. It’s hard to believe because the Tour is the race of my dreams,” Contador continued. “It makes it even more difficult when you consider all the sacrifices we’ve made to be ready for the Tour. I was training yesterday (Tuesday) from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. to improve in the time trial to be ready in the Tour.”
His solo attack ended in vain when the peloton reeled him in with 8km to go. He later nearly broke down in tears when he strode atop the podium after being awarded the day’s most combative rider’s award.
“I wanted to speak to the fans who were supporting me, but it was too emotional for me,” he said. “They’ve been speaking of this possibility for many days now, but I just didn’t want to believe it.”
Following Wednesday’s stage, the team was in shock as riders and staff quietly filed into the team hotel.
The decision not only affects Contador, but also torpedoes the Tour hopes of Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden and the rest of the team and staff.
Team manager Johan Bruyneel wondered out loud if Astaná had a “too strong team.”
“We have done everything to change the dynamics of the team. New management, new riders, new philosophy. Only the name of the sponsor remained. … We are spending 460,000 euros on internal anti-doping efforts for 2008. What more can we do?” Bruyneel said in a team communiqué. “What’s strange is, ASO does not invite us because of the past of a team that had the same name. Many other teams, with a similar suspicious past, that did not change management or structure, can participate without problems. Where is the consistency? Is Tour the France not losing all credibility now?”
While those questions are sure to fill blogs and newspaper fodder for the days and weeks to come, Contador was left wondering what happened to his 2008 season.
Vuelta a España officials already publicly said that Contador and Astaná would be welcome to their event.
“Now we’ll have to try to change plans on the rest of the season and we’ll see what we will do,” he said. “We’ll have to look at the situation with more tranquility and see what we can do.”