An interview with Marc Biver, February 4, 2007
It's over nine months since the Operación Puerto affair broke, yet things are still dragging on at a slow pace. Marc Biver, General Manager of the Astana team, talks about Operación Puerto and how cycling can move beyond the scandal. He also describes Astana's way forward and the team's goals for 2007. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes continues his conversation with Biver at the team's recent training camp in Majorca.
Referring to Operación Puerto, Biver says he hasn't been following the subject in great detail. "If you ask me my opinion on this, I don't have an opinion other than the one that can pick up from the newspapers. I don't have any official documents; I am not deeply informed about what happened. I can say that it is a pity for the sport and especially for cycling, because it has done a lot of damage to the image. Even though you had other sports involved. But nowadays we only talk about the cyclists. Yet, on the other hand, it [the repercussion of Operación Puerto] is probably a good step to move towards a better future for cycling."
The questions, suspicions and shadows caused by the Puerto situation and Floyd Landis' positive test in last year's Tour mean that sponsors and teams are under a lot of pressure to ensure that things are done properly from this point on. Those in cycling are well aware that another major scandal could cause huge damage to the future of the sport. Teams appear to be taking a harder line against doping than in the past.
The Astana website currently lists what it says are be the team's anti-doping policies and ethical code. These are as follows:
"What I can say is that our ethical code complies with what the UCI is requesting, with what the ProTour teams are requesting, with what the AIGCP is requesting, and with what WADA is requesting. This is all included in our ethical code and in my opinion, we can't do more than that." -Marc Biver on Team Astana's anti-doping policies
- The Astana Cycling Team accepts and upholds the obligations of the Pro Tour, the UCI, the AIGCP and the World Anti-Doping Agency's World Anti-Doping Code. All of the Astana Cycling Team's tests will be centralised and performed by two internationally renowned and independent institutions. These tests will include blood tests, echocardiograms and electrocardiograms, as well as an overall medical examination of each cyclist.
- These tests will be supported by additional testing, with or without prior notice, done before and during each race. The cyclist undergoing the tests must accept to abandon the race if the test results indicate some form of anomaly or indicate a risk to the cyclist's health.
- Three physiological tests will be performed in function of the individual racing schedule of each rider. These tests will establish the rider's performance level. In parallel, the cyclist's training programme will be analysed. These tests have the objective of advising the riders in order to avoid injuries due to an inappropriate training programme.
- The cyclists will be monitored by state of the art training software (Training Peaks and Cycling Peaks). In concrete terms, this means that all the information concerning the riders during training sessions, at any moment in time and anywhere in the world, can be measured, analysed, and planned by the sports directors and the medical staff of the Astana Cycling Team.
- Due to the physiological tests and the training software, the check-ups done on the cyclists will for the first time be considerably improved. A better working relationship between the sports directors and the medical team will also be guaranteed.
- As a supplementary security measure, the Astana Cycling Team requires that each rider must declare, before each race, that he has no illegal medication in his possession.
- The riders will also declare that they will not seek any medical support outside of the Astana Cycling Team staff.
- DNA testing will be introduced.
Despite that list, Biver says that Astana has chosen not to be as loud as other teams about their measures.
"I have the feeling that most of the teams such as T-Mobile and CSC have to justify themselves as being the flagship of anti-doping," he says, presumably referring to the negative publicity each team experienced after the exclusion of Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso from the Tour. "But at the end, we are competing to promote the sponsor, to bring sport and racing and not to be the flagship of how you should be clean. I don't think it is a strategy to put your team in the headlines. I think every team has an ethical code... we have one as strong as that of T-Mobile, or perhaps even more so, but I don't want to say publicly "that is our policy, we will punish "
"These are internal rules. What I can say is that our ethical code complies with what the UCI is requesting, with what the ProTour teams are requesting, with what the AIGCP is requesting, and with what WADA is requesting. This is all included in our ethical code and in my opinion, we can't do more than that."
Much has been made of DNA testing. It is not a drug test in itself, but it has clear uses when bags of blood are found after swoops such as that seen in the Puerto case. Astana has the provision of this listed as a policy, but Biver said that there are complications. "It is in our ethical code which the riders have to sign, but you have to be aware that you cannot, under Swiss law, oblige any person to make a DNA test except if it has been requested by a judge.
"Therefore if you ask a rider to do it and he says no, you have no legal background to compel him. And he can go and sue you because you are forcing him. It is in the code, it is signed, but if the guy says no you have no chance except to go and have a legal battle."
Riders, races and targets for the new season
After discussing his beliefs with regard to the ProTour and anti-doping measures, the big question is: what does he pinpoint as the team's main goals in 2007?
"Well," he answered. "Obviously the goal is the Tour de France because the Tour is what gives cycling such a high popularity. But the first goal that we have in the season is certainly Liège-Bastogne-Liège with Kashechkin and Kessler. Then the Tour of Romandy is also a target. Obviously, the Giro d'Italia with Savoldelli is something we will try to do well in, even if we think it is going to be difficult for him to win. Then all the effort and energy is going to be put into the Tour de France."
Vinokourov is a past winner of Liège-Bastogne Liège but Biver doesn't list him amongst the leaders for the race. "He is putting everything on being in top form for the Tour. We will not put any pressure on him before then." This correlates with something the rider said in January
"I will not go to Liège aiming to do something. The Tour de France is my main objective for the season," he stated. "However, I will take part in Liège-Bastogne-Liège because it's good training for me. I will go there to help Kessler and Kashechkin. I already won this race once so it is not my main objective this year."
To all intents and purposes, his victory there in 2005 means it is crossed off his list. So too other events, leaving one major target. "I have already won what I wanted to win in the sport, with the exception of the Tour, and that is my big dream. So it is not really too risky in that respect [to stake everything on July]. I will therefore prepare in the best way possible for the race."
Vinokourov landed the first Grand Tour win of his career in September, yet Biver feels that he didn't need this victory in order to believe in himself as a Tour contender. "Vino was always somebody who was very aware of his capacities. I think it gave him more confidence than he had previously, but he knows perfectly that in sport there is no hard and fast rules one day you might fail, have a bad day, and that is it. You might have a fall, you could be sick. You cannot say I will win, you can only say I will try and I am motivated.
"We also have Klöden in the team who is a potential winner as well. This is actually a nice situation for us, to have two leaders who are able to win the Tour."
At the time of his transfer, there was speculation that part of the reason for Klöden's move was that he didn't want the pressure of being the sole leader at his old team. Yet it seems there may have been other factors too. "What I can tell you is that Klöden was eight or nine years with T-Mobile, I think," Biver stated. "He personally needed new motivation, he needed to have a change of air. We gave him a very good financial proposal and unfortunately for T-Mobile, according to what he says, six weeks after the Tour de France he still hadn't heard anything from them. No offer, nothing.
"We jumped in there I made him a proposal, I talked to him a couple of times and he gave me a verbal agreement. When T-Mobile came back to him, he said I am sorry, I gave my word and I stand by that. Then he called me back and he said you know, Marc, don't worry - even if they offer me much more money than you have offered, my word is my word. I will stay. That shows the heart of the guy."
So what about his status on the team? When Klöden was first signed, the talk was that he would be there as support for Vinokourov. That's at variance with what Astana say now. "There is no number two, no number one [at the Tour]. We start with two leaders, and the legs will decide who is the leader," Biver stated with a smile.
Looking further ahead, the team has what it feels is a trump card for future seasons. "In my opinion, Kashechkin is the big future champion not only for the big Tours, but in cycling. He has all the elements to be a number one. Physically, he fits perfectly on the bike. He has such a professional mentality and such a will that I am sure he will be the number one in the future.
"Right now, he doesn't set his goals that much because he is perfectly aware that his time will come. There is Vino, there is Klöden. And he is ready to help them. His goal is certainly to try to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He has said that very clearly. And also he will try the Tour of Romandie. And then, depending on the Tour de France, we will see what we will do with him for the Vuelta. He will be the guy there."
Savoldelli is also a very strong rider, albeit one who is nearing the end of his career. He'll do everything he can to take one last Giro, and will also be a big asset at the Tour. As regards those on the other end of the spectrum, those on their way up, Biver is also excited.
"I think that we have a great range of top riders, but then we also a very good set of young riders. There is Sladkov, Rast, Schar, Morabito, Frei, Mazet if you look at the whole line-up, we have a pretty young team. Obviously we have six or seven Kazakh riders and we hope that those young guys will learn a lot from Vino, Klöden and Kash we are trying to work towards the future, not only to win the Tour this year. If everything goes well, I think that this Astana team will last six, eight, maybe eight years.
"Right now," he continued, "we have a four-year deal. Of course it is nice to have an arrangement like that. Four years is a long period, but it is also a very short one because time flies. But if everything goes well, it says in the contract that after the second year, the sponsors have the option to extend it. So we will see how it goes "
In Part I, Biver discussed how he came to the helm of Astana and where it fits in the pro peloton.