By Andrew Hood
Perhaps no doping test in Spanish racing history has as much at stake as Roberto Heras’s counter-analysis scheduled for Monday in Madrid.
Many observers say the fate of the four-time Vuelta a España champion – who is facing allegations he used the banned blood-booster EPO en route to his 2005 victory – could have major impacts on the entire Spanish cycling community.
Not only is Heras’s legacy and reputation at stake, but the credibility of cycling also hangs in the balance for many sport fans.
If the follow-up tests on urine sample confirm the presence of EPO – and results are expected to be released by Thursday – Heras would be stripped of his victory and slapped with a two-year racing ban. Runner-up Denis Menchov (Rabobank) would be declared winner.
Laboratory technicians determined that the first of two samples Heras submitted on September 17, following a 56km time trial from Guadalajara to Alcalá de Henares, showed indications of EPO use. News leaked in early November and his Liberty Seguros team, while voicing its support of its star rider, decided to suspend him until the results of the second test are known.
The story has played out in the Spanish media as a major scandal with potentially devastating impacts for the sport.
While defenders insist Heras is innocent, detractors say if the second test does come back positive, it will be further proof that cycling remains a corrupt sport. Jesus Manzano, a former pro who spilled the beans on the extent of organized doping, said Heras is more evidence that “the entire tree is rotten.”
Team sponsor Liberty Seguros, the Spanish subsidiary of Liberty Mutual Insurance, has publicly denied reports that it will pull its multi-million dollar sponsorship deal if Heras comes back positive, but heads could roll within the team if the news is bad.
Heras is Spain’s highest-profile and most successful rider of his generation. While he’s recently struggled in the Tour de France, the lean climber won three consecutive Vuelta crowns in nail-biting fashion.
The Spanish daily Diario Vasco reported this weekend that Heras was on the UCI’s “black list” of suspicious riders after he bounced back from a rather unremarkable Tour de France performance in July (45th overall) to storm back into the Vuelta. The paper said Heras’s recovery from a hard fall on his left knee that left him with 15 stitches in stage 12 from Logroño to Burgos also raised suspicions.
Heras firmly denies he took EPO and finds hope in two cases where riders – trackie Juan Llaneras in 2001 and Italian sprinter Fabrizio Guidi this summer – both gave initial positives only to have the counter-analysis come back negative.
“Without a doubt it’s the worst moment of my sporting career,” he told the Spanish daily Marca earlier this month. “I believe it’s been an error in the lab and you have to focus on proving that’s the case.”
His attorney, Andreu Garriga, is promising a lengthy legal battle if the “B sample” comes back positive.
Romandie celebrates 60
The Tour de Romandie will celebrate its 60th anniversary in late April with a six-stage course starting with a prologue in Geneva and ending with the always decisive individual time trial in Lausanne.
With a mix of rolling and climbing stages in between, organizers revealed the route for next year’s race, set for April 25-30 that traditionally serves an ideal warm-up for riders heading to the Giro d’Italia.
Last year, Santiago Botero (Phonak) won to mark his comeback after two sub-par seasons with T-Mobile.
60th Tour de Romandie, April 25-30
Stage 1 – April 25 – Geneva-Geneva (ITT), 3.4km
Stage 2 – April 26 – Payerne-Payerne, 171km
Stage 3 – April 27 – Porrentruy-Porrentruy, 174km
Stage 4 – April 28 — Bienne to Leysin, 165km
Stage 5 – April 29 – Sion-Sion, 146.9km
Stage 6 – April 30 – Lausanne (ITT), 20.4km
Petacchi says MSR comes first
Alessandro Petacchi – already hinting he might not race next year’s mountainous Giro d’Italia – said his early season focus will be defending his title at Milan-San Remo.
Petacchi, who will ride next season with the new Milram team, won the Italian spring classic in March in a landmark victory that quieted the critics who said he couldn’t win a long, demanding one-day race.
“My first objective will be Milan-San Remo,” Petacchi told Italian news service Datasport. “The Giro? I don’t know. I have to talk to my directors.”
The Italian sprinter hasn’t been shy about his distaste for the climb-laden 2006 Giro and said he might skip it in favor of the Tour de France, which he bypassed in 2005.
Two new Spanish teams
Two new Spanish teams could join the pro ranks in the 2006 season. The Spanish daily Marca reported that a pair of teams – Molinos 3 Murcia Turística and Andalucía Paul Versán – could receive the thumbs up from the UCI in their respective license requests as soon as Monday.
The paper reported that Andalucía Paul Versán has already signed Spanish veterans Ángel Edo, Paco Cabello and Paco Lara while the other team has only signed deals with relative unknowns Luis Castillo and Antonio Baños.
Spain already boasts four teams in the UCI ProTour with Saunier Duval, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Liberty Seguros and Illes Balears.