By Kirsten Robbins in California, USA
In the Saturday afternoon Tour of California press conference AEG Sports president Andrew Messick confirmed that three Rock Racing riders, Santiago Botero, Tyler Hamilton and Oscar Sevilla would not race. "I have a high regard for Michael Ball," said AEG Sports President, Andrew Messick. "He's passionate about cycling, he believes that underdogs deserve a second chance, and I think all of those are enormously admirable. Our issue is that for us to have a race that is credible and fair, and that generates the respect of the organisations around the world – there has to be better a set of rules that are unambiguous and everyone has to live by them ... We are not prepared to make exceptions on the basis of deals. We have an obligation to all the other athletes and teams that have chosen to abide by the rules, and an obligation to the sport. The team is still permitted to start five riders and we would love to have them."
In response to Messick being asked if the possibility remained that Rock Racing would be permitted to start the eight riders, his answer was that "the only riders who will be aloud to start are the riders who are officially on the roster," said Messick regarding the exclusion of the other three riders. "There is a process by which the riders were put on the roster. ... We bent quite a number of rules over the last thirty-six hours to allow the inclusion of Mario Cipollini on the roster, and he is on the roster. As of today, Rock Racing has five riders on its roster, and so five riders will be allowed start.
"Ball and I went for a bike ride this morning and we spent forty-five minutes talking about various issues related to cycling, and while we have an enormous amount in common with respect to our passion for the sport, our hopes for the sport and what we think is required to put the recent past behind us, I think its fair to say that we differ on a number of issues," continued Messick. "I should say that the specific nature of our disagreements is going to stay between Michael and me."
Messick's decision to not start the three riders was based on an agreement between AEG Sports and the 17 teams competing in the event that any rider involved in an 'open' investigation would not be permitted to start the Tour of California. The three Rock Racing riders were recognised by the UCI to have been implicated in Operación Puerto and thus AEG Sports made the final decision to not allow them to start the event.
Although Ball received letters from the riders' national federations of Colombia, USA and Spain confirming that the three riders were not involved in any open investigations, Messick clarified by stating the UCI's direct confirmation was enough to exclude the riders from starting. "The letters are irrelevant, and whether the athlete is eligible to race in UCI races has no bearing on what all seventeen teams agreed to about the eligibility of riders for this race. Every team agreed that no riders who were under an open investigation would participate; it's different from UCI eligibility. Every team agreed the UCI and USA Cycling would tell us about any riders who are currently under investigation and that is the criterion and the basis – that's the rule."