By Susan Westemeyer and Gregor Brown
Team Gerolsteiner placed two of its Italian riders on the inactive list early this season and forgot about both riders soon after. While it announced Andrea Moletta's case at the time, when his father was involved in a doping raid during the Giro d'Italia, nothing was ever made public about the fate of Francesco De Bonis.
De Bonis, 26, is a first year professional who joined to the team upon the recommendation of Davide Rebellin. He rode only a few races for the German team, which is dissolving at the end of the season, but came into his own at the Tour de Romandie.
He finished an impressive 20th in the stage three's individual time trial. The next day he won the fourth stage after he joined an early escape group. He went free on the final climb to claim the mountains points and found the energy to out-sprint the two riders who joined him near the finish. In the final stage, comfortably back in the pack, he finished 13th overall and took home the mountain jersey.
That was Sunday, May 4, and it turned out to have been his final race of the season. Nobody is saying exactly what happened. Team Manager Hans-Michael Holczer "came to the decision that Francesco De Bonis did not fit well to the team," spokesman Jörg Grünefeld told Cyclingnews. "I had problems with the team manager, we did not understand each other," De Bonis said. He added, it was "nothing particular."
Was it a coincidence that this occurred only days after the International Cycling Union (UCI) announced that it was investigating a number of unnamed riders for problems arising from unusual patterns which had emerged through their biological passports? Yes, said De Bonis, it was just a coincidence. "The problem was that I did not see eye to eye with Hans for the season. There were no problems with the hematocrit levels."
Whatever the reason, the result was that the Italian was placed, at least unofficially, on the inactive list. "I am still under contract with them and they are paying me," De Bonis confirmed. He took a vacation and continued to train "Now I am starting with my preparations for 2009." He looks to ride again next year, saying, "it will not be a problem. I am in negotiations with a team."
Looking back at his months with Gerolsteiner, De Bonis said, "At the beginning I found it good. However, in the end, we did not see eye to eye... It is an optimal team – it is a ProTour team. It is one of the best teams in cycling, even if next year it doesn't have a sponsor."
"My teammates treated me well. I got along with everyone, it was only a problem with Hans-Michael – basta."
There was never any secret about why the team placed Andrea Moletta, 29, on inactive status. During the Giro d'Italia, Italian Guardia Finanza stopped his father and questioned him about the Viagra tablets and unidentified fluids. Both father and son denied any knowledge of or participation in any doping.
Like his Italian colleague, the team apparently swept Moletta under the rug. Since the end of May, "Hans hasn't got any helpful further information which could have changed his opinion in this case," Grünefeld said.
Since May 21, Moletta has been on inactive status, unable to race "and trying to solve everything," he told Cyclingnews. "At the end of this month, next week, I should have a 'decrecto' [decree – ed.] from the Padova prosecutor that says I am cleared to race."
It was the team's decision to withdraw him from racing. "I did not agree with them, but I had to follow their decision. I tried to talk with them, but they made their decision and there is the code of ethics that requires them to stop me," Moletta said.
Was he in agreement with the team's actions? He paused before answering, "I was not in agreement. Definitely not in agreement. The system in cycling is messed up. In cycling all you need is some little thing and they stop you right away."
He puts the blame for things more on the situation in the sport today than on the team. "It is more of the way the system works than Team Gerolsteiner – cycling in general."
Like De Bonis, Moletta continues to train and is optimistic about riding next season. "I have always been training. Today, I was out training with Davide Rebellin. When he is at home I go out with him and if he is not there, I go out alone."
Gerolsteiner continues to honour its contract with him and paid him throughout the year. Moletta is now looking for a team for the coming season, although he must still wait for the decree. "I thought that this decree would have arrived sooner! As of yet, I have not started talking to other teams. This year has been strange, and I have been waiting for this decree. When I have it in hand, then I will be able to show that I am free to race."
Sponsor Gerolsteiner announced in September 2007 that it would not extend its contract, which expires at the end of this year. Holczer announced the end of last month that he had not been able to find a new sponsor and that the team would stop at the end of the year.