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Nibali: ‘Astana is a symbol of clean and honest sport’

The 2014 Tour de France champion pleads with the UCI not to strip Astana of its racing license

GENT, Belgium (VN) — With Astana facing possible expulsion from cycling, 2014 Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali wrote to the UCI’s license commission in support of his team.

Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport published a letter the Italian grand tour star wrote via his lawyer, Fausto Malucchi. He sent the letter to the commission, which met with the Kazakh team Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland, to decide the team’s fate.

“The team, winner of the 2013 Giro d’Italia and 2014 Tour de France, is a symbol of clean and honest sport,” the letter reads, according to the newspaper.

“The team must continue to participate in all competitions. It is in the best interests of cycling, of sport and of justice.”

The 30-year-old Sicilian is currently in Tenerife, Spain, training at altitude for the 2015 Tour de France.

Since Nibali won last year’s Tour, the first Italian to do so since Marco Pantani in 1998, life has not been easy.

Five Astana cyclists tested positive for doping, including two from Nibali’s professional team — brothers Maxim and Valentin Iglinskiy. Maxim, winner of the 2012 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, was on Astana’s Tour team one month before his positive test.

The UCI’s commission hesitated before renewing the team’s 2015 license over the winter. However, the UCI said Astana’s fate would hinge on an audit by the Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL).

After the UCI’s top brass read the audit, it immediately asked its commission to pull Astana’s license. Astana spent all day Thursday trying to defend itself against the commission’s panel at a hotel in Geneva.

Part of the evidence presented, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, was a two-page printed e-mail from Nibali, known as “The Shark.”

“Nibali is universally known as a symbol of the fight against doping, and we believe it is very important for a team to have as a captain an athlete with this level of ethics,” reads the letter, written by Malucchi on Nibali’s behalf.

“The audit is certainly important in theoretical terms, but certain lacking elements render it weak. It is the first attempt to evaluate a cycling team, but it considers only Astana, and it does not contrast the team with other teams. It lacks a basis for comparison.

“How can you say that only Astana does not merit a license if the research was not carried out on all the teams in the WorldTour?”

Astana agreed to the audit — and to fund it — as part of the conditions the UCI stated when it granted the team a license in December.

Nibali also touched on the 550-page dossier from the Padua investigation in Italy. Prosecutors focused on the workings of doping doctor Michele Ferrari in 2010 and 2011. Ferrari reportedly worked with former pro and Astana’s current general manager Alexandre Vinokourov and 17 of the team’s riders.

“The dossier can’t be used,” the letter reads. “The documents still have not been presented in the court, and so can’t be considered credible.”

The letter appeared to be long on words but short on substance. The Tour champion backed his employer and said he and the team are honest and believable, but not much else.

Vinokourov’s other defense documents may be more effective in swaying the commission in Astana’s favor. The newspaper article reported that Pierre Zappelli, president of the four-member panel, scheduled another hearing for April 24 in Geneva.

Nibali remains in Tenerife training, but he’s unsure if his team will continue to exist. When he comes down from altitude (7,103 feet), he is due to race the Ardennes Classics and the Critérium du Dauphiné ahead of his Tour de France defense, which starts July 4 in Utrecht, Netherlands.