News feature: April 25, 2007
Team officials comment in Charleroi
One day prior to Flèche Wallonne, race organiser ASO and representatives from the participating teams met in the Stade du Pays de Charleroi in Belgium on Tuesday to discuss doping problems in the sport and ways to bring about some sort of resolution. While media were not granted access to the meeting and details of precisely what was discussed are vague at the moment, Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown and Shane Stokes spoke to - or sought to speak to - a number of those present.
Although nothing definite was decided, a commitment of sorts was reached between those present. They will meet again on Saturday, the eve of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and come up with a clearer agreement of the way forward.
T-Mobile Technical Director Luuc Eisenga was generally positive, although he described the meeting as "a small step. However it was one which was in the right direction, and that is very important.
"There were many things discussed," he continued. "ASO showed that they are serious about this, this stance of not having suspected riders in the event, and that is very good. They have pronounced this very clearly and of course, for us that is the correct way to go. We are completely behind it."
"If we have to go with our team to Madrid [to remove suspicion], we will deliver 29 riders there. That is us going a little bit further, but we hope that other teams are willing to do the same." - T-Mobile Technical Director Luuc Eisenga on DNA testing
T-Mobile were badly hit by Operación Puerto last year, in that it ended the Tour hopes of its star rider Jan Ullrich. However, rather than pull out, the sponsor and new team management came up with a plan to remove suspicion from the team via an array of anti-doping measures.
Eisenga once again underlined that T-Mobile are committed to a clean sport. "I have already said in L'Equipe that if somebody asks us to go to Madrid to compare the bags of blood, then that has to be done. If there is a list of riders that we need to compare the bags with, then for sure that is something that we are going to carry out."
While some teams were more in favour of introducing new measures than others, the 34 year-old Dutchman said that ASO are serious about doing all they can to remove suspicion.
"There was a clear commitment from the organiser which was very good. They are taking the same line as we are, and we are going to talk again on Saturday and come out with something concrete that we are [all] going to do.
"This is not something that is limited to the Tour de France, it should be brought into other races as well. From what we understand, the other organisers from the Giro and the Vuelta are preparing to do the same thing, and that is something that we think is very, very good. Very positive."
'We need to lift the suspicion'
Earlier on Tuesday, it emerged that rather than competing in the Ardennes Classics as originally planned, Ivan Basso will be back in Italy prior to attending a hearing scheduled by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) for next Wednesday, May 2. It was a serious day for the Italian, who is facing new investigations into allegations that he worked with notorious doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.
Basso is looking increasingly likely to have to provide DNA, something he and his lawyers have resisted until now despite the fact that it could clear him of the allegations that he had bags of blood stored in Fuentes' apartment in Madrid. He has been sidelined by his team until such time as more information is established.
"The Basso situation was covered a little bit," Eisenga said of the meeting. "It is a good thing what Discovery did today [suspending Basso - ed.], it was the only possible thing, I think. To make one thing clear, what was discussed is not something from us as teams against individual athletes or individual teams, but it is to lift any suspicion there is in cycling. That is the goal.
"The main objective of this all is to clear this general suspicion that there is around cycling and bike riders. That is very important and that is something that we should achieve. We won't rest before that is done, because otherwise if we don't do that there will be teams disappearing, riders disappearing and sponsors disappearing. We want to be a sport that is credible and that the audience can understand."
In recent weeks T-Mobile and CSC, another team which has brought in strict anti-doping measures since last year, have enjoyed some big successes. T-Mobile won Gent-Wevelgem and the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen [with Marcus Burghardt and Mark Cavendish, respectively] while CSC's Stuart O'Grady took Paris-Roubaix. Cyclingnews asked Eisenga if this was a positive sign for the sport, given that it possibly indicated that the playing field has become a bit more level.
"All we know is how we ride," he said, not willing to be drawn on what other teams may or may not be doing. "We know that our results are results that are achieved in a good way and it shows that our young riders that have the talent can win races. We are very happy with our successes. We are proud of our young riders, that they have done so well and we are thankful to our sponsor that they made it possible that we can do those things."
He said that they are fully committed to helping to clean up the sport. "If we have to go with our team to Madrid [to remove suspicion], we will deliver 29 riders there. That is us going a little bit further, but we hope that other teams are willing to do the same."
Stapleton pleads for unity
T-Mobile General Manager Bob Stapleton shared similar opinions to Eisenga, after coming out of Tuesday's meeting. "We made baby step process, not the progress I had hoped for," he said. A fire-storm has been whipped up in the last week and the American, although happy for the meeting, was still concerned about the progress being made.
"You know, our position is 'let's test all the blood' and not just take DNA from the riders for the list," he noted to Cyclingnews in Charleroi. "I think there are probably 200 blood bags and fifty-some riders that have been identified through various circumstantial information. The only definitive way to make sure that you addressed all the athletes involved is to test all the blood."
Stapleton spoke with Cyclingnewslast month when Jan Ullrich's DNA test results definitively linked him to the blood found in Fuentes' office but now, with the news of Ivan Basso's blood to be tested, momentum is building. CONI stated on Monday that it was calling upon Basso to answer more questions in a meeting, slated for May 2 in Rome.
"The process has been proved now, with Jan. It is an unfortunate proof for him but we need to created positive action in the sport as a result of that. It is totally unfair that it would be just Jan, or maybe even Ivan. It has to be everyone involved. And we need to use that for a basis as a recommitment in the sport to not allow doping."
With Tour Director Prudhomme standing only metres away, Stapleton explained how ASO is leading the charge. He was happy with the organizing body of the Tour pushing for a clean sport but insists on the need for consistency.
"You would have to ask the ASO what their conclusion was but my conclusion was that it was not a very satisfying meeting. Some progress was made but I think there are still very uneven actions around anti-doping. Some [teams] are very committed, some are very much 'wait and see' and some have no interest in it at all. That was clearly evident [to me] looking around the table."
His calmness contrasted with the body language of some others leaving the meeting, around 19.30. In a hurry to depart, Caisse d'Epargne Directeur Sportif Eusebio Unzue declined to comment to Cyclingnews, while Prudhomme preferred to wait until more is known.
"There is a clear desire by the ASO for the teams not to bring its riders that are suspected. They have been a progressive force to date but I don't think this is enough," Stapleton noted in his desire for collaboration. "We need to push for all the blood to be tested and not just from those that happen to be on the list.
"I think that we can do more collectively on that, and I think it involves the cooperation that we talked about before, where the UCI has to step in, and work with the ASO. Doping is the number one problem in the sport but the number two problem is the lack of unity. The sport just does not act together.
The next meeting is slated for the eve of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and it appears as though ASO is taking the charge in the sport. Stapleton is satisfied with the actions but would like to see ASO go further and have more clarity.
"It is not as strong as a position as I would like to see [from the ASO]," continued Stapleton. "I would love for time to say to the teams that you are uninvited if you won't take your riders out. I would like to go that far.
"And frankly its actions need to be more consistent. You have Tinkoff, with some of its riders implicated in Puerto, starting in its races. So, it is clearly a positive force but we need to do more, and we need to be consistent. And that consistency, and inability to work together, is as big as a problem as doping."
ASO's pressure on Puerto related riders may have persuaded CONI to re-open the case on Basso and for Discovery to suspend its relationship with its new signing. "I think they had to if there is an open investigation," said Stapleton of the suspension. "I think that the reality of that overhang [of finding a new sponsor] is pretty devastating to its effort to find a new sponsor. I think it had to [suspend] him; it is probably a fight for survival for Discovery at this stage."
Cyclingnews' recent coverage of 'Operación Puerto'
April 2, 2009 - Valverde indignant over possible suspension
April 1, 2009 - Valverde: Italy requests two-year suspension
March 13, 2009 - Le Monde newspaper hit with fine over Puerto allegations
March 2, 2009 - WADA president Fahey asks for Puerto evidence
February 24, 2009 - Spanish federation seeks access to Puerto blood bags
February 20, 2009 - CONI considers Valverde case while UCI awaits verdict
February 19, 2009 - Valverde under criminal investigation
February 11, 2009 - Valverde summonsed for Operación Puerto in Italy
February 8, 2009 - Eight charged in Operación Puerto