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By Andrew Hood
Phonak was flying high three weeks ago with the dramatic comeback Tour de France victory of Floyd Landis, but now the team is facing an uncertain future in the wake of Landis’ disastrous failed doping control.
Phonak team owner Andy Rihs and team manager John Lelangue have scheduled a Tuesday morning press conference at a Zurich hotel to discuss the team’s future, but many insiders believe the Landis scandal could spell the end of the beleaguered Swiss squad.
Unconfirmed reports were flying at last weekend’s Clásica San Sebastián that iShares – the San Francisco-based online investment service owned by Barclay’s – has pulled out of its June commitment to take over the title sponsorship for the 2007 season.
Those reports could not be confirmed. Phone calls to Lelangue were not returned by Monday, and iShares offices were closed over the weekend. A Phonak team spokesman would only confirm that a Tuesday press conference has been scheduled.
“The decision about what’s going on next with the team will be revealed Tuesday,” team spokesman Georges Luchinger told VeloNews on Monday. “That’s all we know right now.”
The team has maintained its regular racing schedule, but riders and staff attending last weekend’s Clásica were also in the dark about the team’s immediate future. Rihs and Lelangue have been largely out of the public eye the past few weeks and have not returned reporters’ phone calls.
Landis has vehemently denied cheating to win the Tour. Nevertheless, he could become the first Tour winner to have their victory stripped away for a doping violation. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency opened a disciplinary procedure against him following the confirmation of the counter-analysis earlier this month.
Phonak formally cut all ties with Landis following the “B” test positive, firing him and announcing it would not help him in his defense.
iShares, currently a team co-sponsor, committed in June to take over as title sponsor for the 2007-09 seasons. Phonak, a hearing-aid company also owned by Rihs, is set to end its sponsorship at the end of this season.
There is no mention of the Landis doping scandal on iShare’s cycling web link and the company has said it would not make any public statements on the Landis case until a thorough review has been completed.
If the Phonak team does fold, the team’s ProTour license – currently held by the management company Rihs owns – could pass to the equally troubled Astana team in 2007.
Negotiations between the Kazakh sponsor and former Liberty Seguros manager Manolo Sáiz (see story below) to buy out Sáiz’ ProTour license have reportedly broken down.
Astana, sponsored by a consortium of large Kazakh businesses with strong government support, is desperately seeking its own license to move next season into the elite, 20-team league without any connections to Sáiz, one of five people arrested in May in an ongoing doping investigation in Spain.
Sáiz sues over ‘false documents’
Manolo Sáiz – the troubled ex-manager of Liberty Seguros-Wurth, who was among five people arrested in May as part of the “Operación Puerto” doping investigation – has filed a lawsuit in a Spanish court against the director of Spain’s sporting body alleging “prevarication and falsification of public documents.”
According to a report by the Spanish wire service EFE, Sáiz is claiming that Rafael Blanco, director of the Consejo Superior de Deportes (CSD), intentionally lied and falsified documents concerning his role in the ongoing doping investigation that’s rocked Spanish cycling.
“The acts and manifestations of the directors of CSD are false and illicit,” excerpts from the lawsuit read. “The CSD directors … in an effort to show a tough stand in the fight against doping, have caused damages to myself and the society, Active Bay S.A., and its workers, by using illegal documents not authenticated, disguising their true judicial origin and falsifying the truth.”
The suit is the opening salvo in what’s likely to be a long and ugly court battle over implications of “Operación Puerto,” an ongoing police investigation into an alleged doping ring involving dozens of cyclists.
Sáiz has denied any wrongdoing and was released without charges filed against him after being held for questioning back in May.
Sáiz has been forced out of his role as sport director and manager of the team after title sponsor Liberty Seguros pulled the plug on its $8 million-per-year title sponsorship.
Hushovd confirmed for Vuelta
Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd – who won the opening prologue and the final stage at the 2006 Tour de France – has confirmed he will race the Vuelta a España later this month.
The 28-year-old raced his first Vuelta last year, winning the fifth stage but abandoning midway through the race to prepare for the Madrid world championships.
Others lining up for Crédit Agricole include Italian climber Pietro Caucchioli, time-trial specialist Laszlo Bodrogi and Aussie rider Mark Renshaw.
In other news, the team extended its contract with Christophe Le Mevel through the 2008 season. The 25-year-old turned pro in 2001 and won a stage in the Giro d’Italia last year.
Crédit Agricole for Vuelta a España (August 26-September 17):
Elmiger signs with Ag2r
Swiss rider Martin Elmiger (Phonak) has penned a deal to join Ag2r for the next two seasons. A pro since 2001, Elmiger rode with the Post Swiss team before joining Phonak in 2002. He won the Swiss national title twice (2001 and 2005).
“He’s a rider who will help us in the classics at the beginning of the season,” said Ag2r team manager Vicente Lavenu to AFP. “He’s rigorous, a hard worker and isn’t slowed down by the bad weather. He’s perfect for us.”
Kashechkin content, prepping for Vuelta
A content and motivated Andrey Kashechkin, fresh off finishing third at the Clásica San Sebastián in Spain, is readying for an assault on the Vuelta a España.
He and Kazakh compatriot Alexandre Vinokourov will lead the Astana team at the upcoming Vuelta and both riders will be looking to make up for some lost time.
The team was left out of the 2006 Tour de France after five of its nine riders were initially implicated in the ongoing Spanish doping investigation, “Operación Puerto.” Because the team only had four remaining riders – two short of the minimum required six – Kashechkin and Vinokourov took an unexpected July vacation.
The fact that the other five implicated riders have since been cleared of charges by a Spanish court will only fuel their motivation going into the Vuelta.
Concerning Saturday’s ride, Kashechkin said he was “happy because we rode a great race. The team is gaining big results in the last races and this is very important for our future.”
Kashechkin’s only complaint was about protesters who momentarily blocked the road on the key climb up the Cat. 1 Jaizkibel with about 32km to go in the race.
“After about three kilometers of the climb, some individuals cut the road momentarily,” Kashechkin said in a team release. “For this, [Iban] Mayo, [Carlos] Sastre and [Denis] Menchov were able to get away.”
The trio was eventually caught with about 4km to go, setting up the mass sprint won by Xabier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom), with Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas) coming around Kashechkin to take second.
Astana for ENECO Tour, GP Plouay and Tour of Poland:
Koen de Kort
Jose Antonio Redondo
Jose Joaquín Rojas