Teams still sniffing around for Tour place

On March 30th the organisers of the Tour de France announced the teams which will take part in this year’s edition of the race. According to an agreement that was reached with the UCI in 2008, ASO were obliged to invite 16 teams to the Tour this year. These teams are:

AG2R La Mondiale
Bbox Bouygues Telecom
Caisse d’Epargne
Francaise des Jeux
HTC- Columbia
Quick Step
Saxo Bank
Omega Pharma-Lotto

This left the participation of six teams to the discretion of race organisers ASO. They chose to give three of these six wildcard slots to American teams Radio Shack, Garmin-Transitions and BMC, also invited were Team Sky, Cervelo and Katusha. The fact that the Tour is due to start in the Netherlands it seemed a tad harsh that both Pro Continental Dutch squads Vacansoleil and Skil-Shimano were snubbed. Although with G.C. riders like Armstrong, Vande Velde, Evans, Wiggins, Sastre and Kirchen at the disposal of the six teams that were given wildcards, it’s hard to see the ASO not extending an invite to any one of them (even though I trumpeted the cause of the teams that eventually weren’t picked).

In a separate issue, a story broke a week later of a doping investigation being carried out in Mantova, Italy. At the centre of the investigation is the Lampre-Farnese Vini team. Depending on which report you read, the number of people (riders, doctors, directeur sportifs etc.) under investigation is between 35 and 54. BMC racing are also involved in this doping controversy by association, as two of its riders Alessandro Ballan and Mauro Santambrogio were part of the Lampre squad last year when the events under investigation took place. However, it must be noted that as yet, no riders have been charged with anything. Under Italian law, any rider under suspicion and being investigated must be notified by the police. Any resulting doping bans are not likely to be handed out for months. In fact, official accusations will not be revealed until May, during the Giro d’Italia.

BMC have taken the decision to withdraw Ballan and Santambrogio citing the following from the UCI code of contact for Pro Tour teams:

UCI Pro Tour teams undertake…not to enter any licence-holder for events who is subject to judicial proceedings or investigation for facts relating to sporting activity, or any act constituting a breach of the UCI antidoping regulations, or any other intentional criminal act.

I’m no expert in legalese, but this seems to suggest that Lampre and BMC are obliged to suspend their own riders from racing, that it is a procedure to which they have a contractual responsibility to enforce. The secretary of the rider’s association had this to say about BMC’s decision:

There is still no specific accusation. All we know is that there is an investigation that will take six more months before it’s finished. The prosecutor himself said that those under investigation will not necessarily be accused of anything. So suspending the riders now seems an imprudent and unfair act to us. If they come out clean, who will pay back the damage to their image and the loss of racing?

Lampre have taken no such action and have announced that they don’t intend to as so far nobody has been accused of anything. I admit that I agree with Lampre and the rider’s association on their stance. Surely teams should wait until there is an actual case to answer before deciding to internally suspend their riders. This would mean all riders involved being allowed to race until at least May, when formal accusations are expected.

Perhaps this hard line stance by BMC is an attempt to maintain their wildcard slot at the Tour de France in July. The fact that BMC and Lampre are now embroiled in a doping controversy will have pricked the ears of Vacansoleil and Skil-Shimano who will be looking to capitalise if either BMC or Lampre are subsequently shut out of the Tour. However, I don’t think that BMC or Lampre have much to be worried about in terms of their Tour place. In recent years it has been specific riders and not entire teams that have been excluded from the race due to doping misdemeanors (with two notable exceptions which will be explained below).

When the details of riders involved in Operation Puerto were released, nine riders were barred from participating in the 2006 Tour de France. Ivan Basso of Team CSC, Francisco Mancebo of AG2R and both Jan Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla of the T-Mobile team were all prevented from starting the Tour. However their teams were allowed to participate and each went on to have a successful Tour. Carlos Sastre of Team CSC and Andreas Kloden of T-Mobile both finished on the podium and AG2R had Cyril Dessel and Christophe Moreau place 6th and 7th respectively. There was only one team which was supposed to start the Tour in 2006 but didn’t because of Operation Puerto. This was the Astana-Wurth team, who weren’t excluded explicitly, but who weren’t allowed to start because the remaining five riders (Allan Davis, Isidro Nozal, Alberto Contador, Joseba Beloki and Sergio Paulinho) that were barred from entering the Tour belonged to this team. This only left four riders remaining to start the Tour for Astana-Wurth which is below the minimum required.

In 2007, there were a number of doping controversies at the Tour, namely Christophe Moreni (Cofidis), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval), Patrick Sinkewitz (T-Mobile) and Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank). Despite these controversies, each of these teams were allowed to particpate in the 2008 Tour the following year. The most notable exception was Astana. Despite undergoing a major overhaul of personnel led by directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel, Astana, along with reigning Tour champion Contador, were barred from the Tour de France in 2008. This was their second consecutive year to be involved in a doping controversy and the Tour organisers saw it fit to exclude them completely from the Tour.

At the 2008 Tour de France, Ricardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli of Saunier Duval and Stefan Schumacher and Bernhard Kohl of Gerolsteiner all tested positive in doping controls. Ultimately, there was no need for the fate of Gerolsteiner to be decided as the team disbanded at the end of 2008. But for Saunier Duval, this was their second consecutive year to be involved in a doping controversy, and as such, like Astana, the team in their new guise of Fuji-Servetto were not afforded the opportunity to participate in the following Tour de France in 2009.

Obviously all of the above doping controversies took place during the Tour de France itself and were not apparent beforehand. Perhaps the ASO will not take the current Mantova investigation into consideration at all when deciding whether they may or may not bar BMC or Lampre from entering the Tour.The two teams have plenty to be worried about, as there is rarely any smoke without fire. While there may be a number of riders suspended eventually, Vacansoleil and Skil-Shimano will have to hope for better news in 2011 as I think BMC and Lampre’s Tour participation is assured.

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