Thomas Dekker's removal from Silence-Lotto's Tour de France squad following the announcement that his biological passport profile rendered suspicious values is a blow for team leader Cadel Evans, although the Australian is looking ahead rather than dwelling on the news.
Dekker has been placed on non-active status and will consequently miss the Tour, which starts in Monaco on Saturday. While Dekker was brought to the Belgian squad as reinforcement for Evans' Tour challenge, the apparent infraction in question occurred during his tenure with Rabobank. UCI anti-doping officials called for further testing of an out-of-competition sample taken on Christmas Eve two years ago.
"He found out on Wednesday morning that fresh analysis, carried out in May at the behest of WADA, on urine samples from a random doping control had turned up positive for EPO," Silence-Lotto management said in a statement.
"The first tests had turned up negative but the samples were kept for retroactive testing so that newer forms of EPO could be detected with the latest detection methods," it added.
This is the second setback for Silence-Lotto in its bid to bolster Evans' list of domestiques for a Tour title push. Potential recruit Bernhard Kohl was suspended for testing positive to CERA during last year's Tour and subsequently retired from the sport.
"I thought the man who placed third on the Tour coming to help me was too good to be true and indeed it was," Evans recently told Reuters.
The Australian's reaction to this latest development was understated and forthright. "We're here as a team to do what we can, and unfortunately this announcement changes our plans a little bit... but we have time. Charly Wegelius is on his way here and we'll still concentrate on doing the best Tour we can," he told NOS.nl.
"This year our team had 11 riders worthy of riding the Tour de France and of course there are only nine places. Now we're down to 10 riders and there are still only nine places [for the Tour squad].
"Fortunately we had a team strong enough where we had that depth in numbers and we could have another good rider who we hope is going to be at his best and do the job that we need," he said.
In addition to Wegelius, Evans has the service of Jurgen Van den Broeck, Johan Vansummeren, Matthew Lloyd and Staf Scheirlinckx for the mountains stages; all five are extremely capable riders who should prove their mettle over the next three weeks.
Dekker had been brought in to aid the Australian after second place finishes in 2007 and 2008 meant that more was asked of his team in terms of manpower for la Grande Boucle. Team manager Marc Sergeant is immensely disappointed with the news and made it clear on the team's website.
"I feel cheated. Even though this happened before Dekker joined Silence-Lotto, while serving with Rabobank, it is a hard blow anyway. I have put him on the non-active list, and I have instructed Charles Wegelius to come to Monaco," said Sergeant.
Marc Coucke, CEO of Omega Pharma, the company behind principal sponsor Silence, reiterated the stance the team takes to doping via the official site. "We prefer finishing fourth at the Tour rather than winning with somebody who deceived us," he said. "We have published the news concerning Thomas Dekker although we cannot be blamed for it, and we do not want to have anything to do with doping."
Suitable back up steps in
Dekker possesses a palmares that boasts overall wins in Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie; the 24-year-old has ridden two Grand Tours and has been spoken of as a potential top 10 general classification rider at the Tour thanks to his 35th overall at the 2007 Tour de France. His signing for Silence-Lotto was a coup for the Belgian team last season after leaving Rabobank.
This development will surely put a halt to that progress however, as a sanction for his doping infraction will most likely be forthcoming.
His replacement in Silence-Lotto's Tour team, Charly Wegelius, is a proven, reliable big race rider, with nine Grand Tours under his belt. His role in the Liquigas squad, where he rode for four seasons, was akin to the job he needs to do for Evans in France this month.
Disappointment surrounding 'star' recruits is nothing new to Evans, who had entered last year's edition of the Tour with optimism after the signing of Yaroslav Popovych. The Ukrainian proved to be an abject failure at the Belgian team and by the end of the year had been reunited with Johan Bruyneel, who he had ridden for at the former Discovery Channel squad. He'll now be an Astana domestique for Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong at this year's Tour de France.
Despite these setbacks and talk of Astana's might and power in the race, Evans remains resolute and maintains a sense of humour about the situation. He has dismissed claims that the Astana squad is unbeatable. "I hear that Contador will win [the Tour’s opening time trial] in Monaco, that his Astana team will be unbeatable in the team time trial, that Contador will be stirred up in the stages in Spain and that we have no chance. If I listen to that, there's no use starting the race," Evans said recently.