By Laura Weislo
The Astana team was given a resounding vote of no confidence on Wednesday when the Tour de France organiser, Amaury Sport Organisation, announced that the team would not be invited to any of the ASO's events. This means its star, Alberto Contador, will not be able to defend his titles in either the Tour or the upcoming Paris-Nice.
The decision was met with shock from the team's manager, Johan Bruyneel, who has been pushing to convince the world that his 2008 squad is completely different from the squad which was forced to exit last year's Tour after Alexander Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping following his win in the stage 13 time trial.
"That the happenings of last year in Tour de France prompted the Tour organizers to leave Astana out of the season's most important race sounds understandable," admitted Bruyneel. "However, Astana Cycling Team 2008 has nothing to do with the team of last year. We have done everything to change the dynamics of the team."
Bruyneel took the general manager position with Astana this year, succeeding Marc Biver, who had taken over the squad after the Liberty Seguros manager Manuel Saiz after Saiz had been arrested in connection with Operación Puerto. When the sponsor pulled out, the Kazakh government stepped in to support its stars Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin, and the team continued as Astana-Würth.
Biver, like Bruyneel, put into place anti-doping measures as well as an ethical charter for the squad, but after both Kashechkin and Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping, and Matthias Kessler for testosterone in 2007, one could say the policies were ineffective.
Bruyneel went further, signing on Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard to administer the same type of program used by Team CSC in 2007, but the ASO was reluctant to believe in the changes until they are proven.
"We remember what happened in 2006," Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme told Reuters. "Then came 2007 with a new team who asked us to trust them. We did that and paid dearly for it."
Bruyneel was incredulous, stating, "We are spending 460,000 euro on internal anti-doping efforts for 2008. What more can we do?" The ASO opened the door to the team participating in future years, saying they "will keep a close eye on Astana's efforts to have a 2008 season free from [doping] affairs or suspicions, and they may be re-admitted in the future," but Bruyneel was not appeased.
"What is strange," Bruyneel continued, "is ASO does not invite us because of the past of a team that had the same name. Many other teams, with a similar suspicious past, that even did not change management or structure, can participate without problems. Where is the consistency? Is Tour the France not losing all credibility now?"
Astana directeur sportif Alain Gallopin was rather resigned, and said he would put his energies into reformulating the team's race schedule. "We cannot force anything. It is probably impossible to appeal against their decision," he stated. "We will prove in other races that we are left home unjustly. It is better to know early than late that we cannot participate. There are still other races on the cycling calendar.
"I am disappointed for Alberto. Now I need to make soon a new programme for the riders and staff and go forward."
American national champion and third place overall in the 2007 Tour, Levi Leipheimer, was also in disbelief, after hearing the news but vowed to fight back. "I am in shock and very disappointed." he said.
"Along with my friends, family and supporters, I can't understand why we are not allowed to take part in the Tour and defend Alberto's title with two other riders capable of winning, myself included. We are all left wondering. I chose this team because it was a very new team, which I've already experienced. I stand by my decision to be part of the new Astana team for 2008. In a supportive manner, the entire team will fight back. The many encouragements I already received today mean a lot to me."
The full list of teams is expected to be named by ASO on February 29.