By Andrew Hood
The climber-friendly 2008 Tour de France route looks ideal for defending champion Alberto Contador, but there’s no guarantee that he or his new-look Astana team will be at the July 5 start in Brest.
Astana’s scandal-ridden 2006 season could prove an obstacle more challenging to overcome than any of the course’s mountains as Tour officials promise to take a harder line when considering which teams will take part in the season’s most important race.
New Astana manager Johan Bruyneel admits the team must convince Tour officials that changes are more than cosmetic to prove it deserves a Tour spot.
“I cannot erase the past. We are starting a new project, with a new philosophy, a new idea and a new structure. I have to prove it’s a new team, that we will be ready for the Tour and that we want to be in the Tour,” Bruyneel said Thursday in Paris. “They told us that no one is guaranteed a start position, that we all start with the same situation on equal terms and that we all have to prove we deserve to be in the Tour
The Kazakh-sponsored squad left the Tour last year in humiliation after star rider and captain Alexander Vinokourov tested positive for homologous blood doping. The Vuelta a España later told the team it wasn’t welcome.
Despite a string of other doping scandals involving Eddy Mazzoleni, Andrey Kashechkin and Matthias Kessler, a consortium of Kazakh sponsors vowed to press on with the team’s estimated budget of $15 million per year. They forced out manager Marc Biver and tapped former Discovery Channel sport director Bruyneel to restructure the team.
Bruyneel has already promised the team will be working with anti-doping crusader Rasmus Damsgaard in an internal control program similar to the one instituted this year by Team CSC.
“The most important thing is that we do what we say we’re going to do,” Bruyneel said.
Bruyneel will also be keen to build some bridges with Tour officials in the coming months following a somewhat-contentious relationship during the years of Lance Armstrong’s Tour domination.
The arrival of Tour champ Contador and third-place podium man Levi Leipheimer will add new weight to the team’s rebuilding effort. It would be hard to imagine the Tour not inviting two-thirds of its podium.
Tour officials, however, say they will take a closer look at what teams are doing to guarantee a clean race. The Tour has been riddled by doping scandals the past two seasons and race officials have already said ethics and clean racing will be its top criteria when considering which teams to be invited to the Tour.
Contador admitted that the uncertainty surrounding the team came into play when mulling options for a new contract following the closure of Discovery Channel at the end of this season.
The 25-year-old Spanish rider eventually followed Bruyneel to Astana with the hope that changes within the team will be looked on favorably by Tour officials.
“The image of Astana this year has been stained with scandals. I had doubts (about joining Astana), I spoke with my family and I saw that it was the best option,” Contador said. “The technical staff has changed completely and they have a strong block to be competitive on July 5 to fight for the overall. We are going to apply anti-doping systems similar to what CSC is using and I believe it’s an important step to change the image of the team. I believe I’ve taken the best decision.”
Overall, Contador said he admits he’ll be feeling the pressure when he lines up next July. His victory this year came as a complete surprise for most and now he’ll have the pressure to try to confirm it with a second win.
“I like a little pressure. I’m not going to say I am going to win again, but because that’s something very difficult, but I am going to be full of motivation to try to reaffirm the title,” said Contador, he added he would have liked to have seen a climbing time trial. “It is what it is. I will have to adapt myself to the course and fight for the victory.”
Soler dreams of the Alpe
Colombian climbing sensation Mauricio Soler walked away from Thursday’s Tour presentation with one dream: winning the stage to L’Alpe d’Huez.
“It will be an interesting stage and we will study in-depth and prepare ourselves to do something important,” Soler said. “If I could win, it would be something huge. After my victory at the Galibier (to Briancon) last year, to win on another mythic climb would be fantastic.
Soler blasted onto the Tour last year and delivered a remarkable rookie performance for wildcard invitee Barloworld, winning a stage into Briancon, securing the best climber’s jersey and finishing 11th overall.
For 2008, Soler wants to hit the repeat button and improve in the GC.
“It’s an interesting course. For a climber like me, there are less kilometers in the time trial and that will only help,” Soler said. “I’d like to win the climber’s jersey again, win another mountain stage and finish among the top 10.” Sinkewitz tells all
Patrik Sinkewitz spent five hours giving evidence to the German cycling federation’s (BDR) disciplinary committee, including details about the doping methods at his old team T-Mobile, it was reported on Thursday.
Agence France Presse reported that the 27-year-old, sacked during this year’s Tour de France after his routine drugs test was found to have abnormal levels of testosterone, gave evidence in a marathon session to the committee in Frankfurt on Wednesday.
He has been co-operating with the BDR in an effort to get the normal two-year ban for his offense reduced.
“His statements were not expected to be revealing to this scale,” the committee’s chairman, Frankfurt lawyer Peter Barth, told German agency SID. “He has disclosed his time at T-Mobile in 2006 and produced a very extensive picture about doping methods by doctors and team doctors.”
Barth noted that Sinkewitz clearly stated that none of his allegations involved the current T-Mobile squad, which was completely reorganized following the scandal.
“Mr. Sinkewitz said that in his opinion there are no doping products currently provided at T-Mobile,” said Barth.
A judgment is to be expected within the next two weeks and the committee must decide if further investigation is necessary.
Efimkin to Ag2r
France’s Ag2r has signed a two-year deal with Russian sensation Vladimir Efimkin in an addition that closes out the roster at 30 riders for 2008.
Efimkin, 25, surged onto the radar screen this year with stage victories at the Bicicleta Vasca and Vuelta a España and wore the race leader’s jerseys at both the Tour de Suisse and Vuelta.
Efimkin’s twin brother, Alexander, has joined QuickStep-Innergetic.
1. Ag2r-Prévoyance for 2008: José Luis Arrieta (Sp); Sylvain Calzati (F), Philip Deignan (Irl; Cyril Dessel (F); Renaud Dion (F); Hubert Dupont (F); Christophe Edaleine (F); Vladimir Efimkin (Rus); Martin Elmiger (Swi); John Gadret (F); Stéphane Goubert (F); Tanel Kangert (Est); Yuriy Krivtsov (Ukr); Julien Loubet (F); René Mandri (Est); Laurent Mangel (F); Lloyd Mondory (F); Jean-Patrick Nazon (F); Rinaldo Nocentini (I); Cédric Pineau (F); Alexandr Pliuschin (Mol) ; Stéphane Poulhiès (F); Christophe Riblon (F); Nicolas Rousseau (F); Jean-Charles Senac (F); Blaise Sonnery (F); Ludovic Turpin (F); Alexandre Usov (Blr); Stijn Vandenbergh (B); Tadej Valjavec (Slo)