By Andrew Hood
Spanish star Alejandro Valverde finds himself treading increasingly dangerous water in the face of increasing speculation that he might be one of the unnamed riders among the Operación Puerto papers that continue to haunt cycling.
Valverde admitted that he knows controversial doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, the alleged ringleader at the center of the Puerto doping scandal, during his tenure at Kelme from 2002-04 when Fuentes worked as the team’s doctor. Valverde even said he has a dog named Piti, but denied it links him to the ongoing doping scandal.
“I know Fuentes from my time at Kelme, but that was already three years ago,” Valverde said in an interview with the Spanish daily MARCA. “I am not involved in Puerto. My name has not been mentioned by authorities. …They say there are papers from 2004 with the name ‘Piti,’ but how are they going to be mine because my dog wasn’t even born until 2005?”
Rumors have been swirling for months that the defending ProTour champion could be identified as “Piti,” one of the codenames listed among documents confiscated during police raids last year, and that a bag of blood identified as “No. 18” could correspond to the Spanish sensation.
The latest comments come on the heels of increasing pressure that Tour officials are putting on teams to keep Puerto-linked riders out of the 2007 Tour. Race officials want to avoid another public relations disaster like the one that marred last year’s edition, which saw nine riders from four teams kicked out a day before the opening prologue.
Tour officials met with representatives of the Caisse d’Epargne team last month, but team officials continue to insist that Valverde is not involved in the doping scandal.
Caisse d’Epargne team manager José Miguel Echavarri angrily defended Valverde.
“No one’s ever denied that Alejandro and other riders that were on Kelme had Eufemiano Fuentes as their doctor, because he was the team doctor at the time. That doesn’t justify what certain Talibans, colleagues and journalists are doing, who are making a witch hunt for a rider who, whether they like it or not, is not involved in Operación Puerto,” Echavarri said on Spanish radio. “There is a public lynching of a rider based solely on rumors.”
The team announced last month that Valverde would give DNA samples if asked by a judge. Tour officials are quietly insisting that Puerto riders voluntarily provide DNA samples to remove any doubt, but don’t have legal powers to force the issue.
“We released a communiqué that clearly stated that (Valverde) would give DNA samples in the moment that the courts consider it necessary,” Echavarri said. “If the director of the Tour believes that there’s this suspicion, I don’t have to demonstrate my innocence. He should have to prove our guilt. … We are in a situation where many athletes want to demonstrate their innocence yet the judge considers the case closed.”
Echavarri also said Tour officials have not asked the team to leave Valverde out of cycling’s marquee race.
“They haven’t said that and they can’t say it, either. The UCI let it be known very clear that Mr. Valverde is not implicated in Operación Puerto. Until today, there hasn’t been any change,” Echavarri said. “If this famous bag of blood had belonged to Valverde, the Guardia Civil or the judges wouldn’t have hidden it.”
Valverde’s uncertain status underscores the complicated situation facing cycling over the fallout from the Puerto investigation. Earlier this year, a Spanish judge formally closed the case, but the sport continues to wrestle with a mountain of evidence, some 6,000 pages.
Last month, 2006 Giro d’Italia champion Ivan Basso and ex-Liberty Seguros rider Michele Scarponi became the first riders to publicly admit they worked with Fuentes.
Caisse d’Epargne inspects Pyrenees stages
Despite the speculation, Valverde and key Caisse d’Epargne teammates are in the Pyrenees this week to inspect key stages of the 2007 Tour de France.
On Thursday, the riders pushed through fog and rain to climb up Plateau de Beille, the queen stage across the Pyrenees on July 22. The team was scheduled to ride 100km over the Mente, Bales and Peyresourde climbs, all part of the stage on July 23. The inspection tour concludes Saturday with a ride up the Aubisque.
Joining Valverde were last year’s runner-up Oscar Pereiro, Joaquin Rodriguez, Fran Perez, Luis Leon Sancez, Xabier Zabio and French riders Florent Brard and Nicolas Portal.
Di Luca among four tested at Giro
Authorities from the Italian Olympic committee took blood and urine samples from leading riders at the Giro d’Italia following Wednesday’s epic climbing stage to Monte Zoncolan. Among those tested were race leader Danilo Di Luca, stage winner Gilberto Simoni, Riccardo Riccò and Eddy Mazzoleni.
The tests came as Italian authorities, led by anti-doping prosecutor Ettore Torri, continue to investigate a possible doping ring dubbed “Oil for Drugs,” to which some Italian cyclists have been linked.
“I don’t feel targeted by these tests. Torri does his work and I do mine. I have nothing to hide,” Di Luca told journalists at the Giro. “I submitted to these tests, even if the UCI and WADA already do them. They took longer than normal and after a hard stage like Zoncolan I didn’t even sit down to eat until 10:30 p.m. My lawyer has already worked to clear the situation.”