Following Fränk Schleck’s withdrawal from the Tour de France after news of his adverse analytical finding for Xipamide, the RadioShack-Nissan team bus was the centre of attention in Pau on Wednesday before the start of stage 16.
As reporters waited for the riders to emerge to sign on, press officer Philippe Maertens was working the television crews, reiterating what he had said the previous night at the Villa Navarre hotel on the outskirts of town.
“For the moment there is nothing we can do. Fränk will have to defend himself. It won’t be easy, he has no explanation. We have no explanation,” Maertens said.
When the RadioShack riders finally began to descend the steps of the bus, it befell the team’s most senior figure, Jens Voigt, to speak to reporters. The 40-year-old has been a teammate of Schleck’s since 2004, has ridden with the Luxembourger in the colours of CSC, Saxo Bank, Leopard Trek and RadioShack-Nissan in the intervening period.
"We have to wait for the B-sample to confirm it and we have to wait for what Fränk has to say but it’s never an easy situation,” Voigt said, before recounting the atmosphere at the team hotel the previous evening when news of Schleck’s sample broke.
“We heard about it yesterday night after dinner. We had a moment of silence to try and digest the news and the consequences of what it actually means,” said Voigt, who went on to voice his support for Schleck.
“It’s not easy but like I said, we’ll wait for the B-sample and for what Fränkie has to say. After all it’s many years that I’ve said he’s a good friend of mine. Friendship goes not only in the sunshine but also when it rains. I still believe in him.”
Asked if he could understand that many observers would find it very difficult to believe in Schleck’s good faith and his claim that he may have been a victim of poisoning, Voigt paused before replying.
“Yes, I understand that. It’s the same for me,” he said. “All I’ve wished for the last five years is that we’d have one year of a peaceful Tour de France where we just concentrate on the sport. Every year it seems like we have another happening. It’s pretty hard.”
Schleck returned a sample that contained traces of the diuretic on July 14 and although the B-sample has yet to be analysed, it was decided that he would not continue in the race. A similar scenario arose in last year’s Tour when Alexandr Kolobnev tested positive for the specified substance hydrochlorothiazide and was sent home by his Katusha team.
In its statement announcing the adverse analytical finding on Tuesday evening, the UCI had strongly suggested that RadioShack-Nissan remove Schleck from the Tour. A positive A-sample for a specified substance such as Xipamide does not trigger an automatic suspension, but Schleck’s departure was inevitable once the news broke.
“It’s a suggestion that I can understand,” Maertens said. “I think it’s a kind of suggestion to the team to take him out of the race to prevent all misery and theatre like this. In theory, Fränk has the right to start but it made no sense. He has not the legs to do it now and it would have been every day like this.”
While his teammates were preparing for the Tour’s set-piece Pyrenean stage, Schleck was on the road north to Luxembourg in the company of his family, who had come to visit him during the rest day.
Asked how the remainder of the squad had dealt with the news, Maertens smiled helplessly. “Not so good, eh,” he said. “But they have sometimes worse things in life.”
Before the six remaining RadioShack-Nissan riders (Haimar Zubeldia, Andreas Klöden, Chris Horner, Maxime Monfort, Yaroslav Popovych and Voigt) stepped off the bus, directeur sportif Alain Gallopin had attempted to put a brave face on the situation, saying that he would look to motivate them to defend their lead in the team classification. “We’ll try to do the maximum,” he said. “My job as DS is to motivate my riders and encourage them.”
Gallopin explained why Schleck had taken the initiative of going to the police in Pau himself on Tuesday evening and stressed that the rider had no civil case to answer under French law. “Every time there’s a positive test, the police come to the hotel and I didn’t want to see the images of Fränk in a police car,” he said. “They told us that there would be no ‘Fränk Schleck case’ because the product is not on the list of products forbidden by the sporting code in France.”
Team manager Johan Bruyneel, who absented himself from this year’s Tour after the United States Anti-Doping Agency charged him with doping in June, has yet to comment on the matter.