By Shane Stokes
The endless "is he, isn't he?" saga concerning Alejandro Valverde and codename "Valv.Piti" appeared to have moved a step closer to a definitive decision on Thursday when the Italian Olympic Committee CONI announced that it had proved a DNA match between the Spanish rider and blood bag number 18, seized during the Operación Puerto raids in May 2006. The bag was later found to contain EPO.
"We can say with certitude that the blood in bag number 18 belongs to Valverde," said anti-doping prosecutor Ettore Torri after the doping hearing held Thursday in Rome's Olympic Stadium. He also stated that documents obtained by CONI proved a link between the Caisse d'Epargne rider and the controversial doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.
CONI announced last Wednesday that it was investigating Valverde on the basis of a DNA match with a blood sample taken when last year's Tour de France entered Italy.
The sample was obtained in a surprise anti-doping swoop carried out the evening of Sunday July 20, where stage 15 finished at the summit of Prato Nevoso in Italy. The Spaniard was tested and so too were several riders from the CSC Saxo Bank team, including the-then yellow jersey Frank Schleck (CSC Saxo Bank). The Luxembourg rider has denied doping despite admitting that he transferred a sum of money to Fuentes.
Valverde had won a stage and earlier worn yellow in the race; he was also second on stage six to Super Besse but stood to be promoted to first there after the disqualification of Italian rider Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) for doping with CERA.
Upon arriving in Italy on Thursday, Valverde was placed under criminal investigation. The Spaniard was informed that the separate probe had been opened when he arrived at Rome's Olympic Stadium for his hearing.
Links to Spanish doping probe
The Caisse d’Epargne rider has continually denied being the rider codenamed as "Valv. Piti", notwithstanding the clear similarities to his surname plus the fact that he has a dog named Piti.
Fuentes, who was at the centre of the Operación Puerto doping ring, had used the names of riders' pets as the basis for some of the codenames. He previously treated Valverde when the rider was part of the Kelme team, but the latter maintains he did not dope then or at any point in his career.
The UCI clearly has grounds to believe otherwise, having attempted to bar him from riding the 2007 world road race championships in Stuttgart due to the Puerto evidence. This was dismissed by CAS, but the world governing body told Cyclingnews on Thursday that it would weigh up the case against the Spaniard if CONI pronounces him guilty.
This could potentially lead to a complete ban on the rider. "Once a decision is taken by a national antidoping autority, the UCI will review it," said its spokesman Enrico Carpani. "If everything has been made accordingly with the rules, we will also recognize and enforce it worldwide."
This is the same procedure used by the UCI in enforcing the recent AFLD decision to ban the Spaniard Manuel Beltran for two years. The then-Liquigas rider tested positive for EPO during last year's Tour. German rider Stefan Schumacher failed a test for CERA and learned on Thursday that he too was facing a two-year ban. It is expected that the UCI will also verify this shortly.