By Kirsten Robbins in California, USA
Astana has been up against a difficult battle with ASO, the French organisation that runs the Tour de France, after being told they were not invited to compete in the 2008 Tour even though it has the defending champion, Spaniard Alberto Contador, and third placed rider, Levi Leipheimer.
USA rider Leipheimer addressed the issue at hand during the press conference held on the eve of Tour of California prologue, stating that he has no idea why ASO would exclude its winning team from the event this year.
"First of all I think I would say that I'm really sad about what's happened to us in the last week," said Leipheimer, who found out about his team's non-invite to the Tour just days before the start of the Tour of California. "I can't speak for ASO; I don't know what it's thinking. I do know what I've read and that is that Contador has made himself available for questioning; he's offered his DNA to the proper authorities. I don't know what else we and Astana can do to prove to the world that we are on board with the new cycling."
Leipheimer noted his main reason for signing the 2008 Astana team was because it had little to do with the old Astana programme and was more of a new rendition of the Discovery Channel squad. "The main reason I signed with this team is because it was already in place," said Leipheimer. "In my mind I see that Discovery Channel brought on a new sponsor, they got a renewal and that's how I logically handled the position in my own head. So I have no idea what ASO's reason is for excluding us from the Tour; that's what is so frustrating. We are all left to wonder because there are no set of rules they follow – If they don't like you, they can exclude you. It's unfortunate because Astana has put millions of euro into this sport and they've basically been told to just go home."
Prior to the press conference, Leipheimer was stopped in the walkway and given a hat and t-shirt that read LetLeviRide.com – a petition website designed to campaign an appeal ASO's ban on Astana in this year's Tour. "I will say that I received an overwhelming amount of support from fans, friends, family and people I don't even know, who will stop me and tell me that they support us," continued Leipheimer.
"This website is an example of overwhelming support for our team. In the end I think that, I worked my whole life to do the Tour and when I was thirteen years old I knew I wanted to be there. I sacrificed my whole life and I've trained my whole life, as all these guys have. We've all gone to bed early, watched what we ate, rode our bikes enormous amount of miles our whole life, and I feel like it is a little bit unjust what the Tour de France has done."
When asked if he regretted joining Astana and if he would consider riding for another team, he responded, "When I joined Astana in my mind I didn't foresee this problem. I think any logical person would see it the same way. We have sponsors that sign up for the team that think the same as I do and other riders. I think if the ASO's reasons for excluding us from the Tour have to do with last year's Tour or before, it sounds like it could have made that decision last year in August, which would have been a little bit fairer. We are all wondering what the exact reason is; there is not set of rules and no security for the sponsors for our teams to count on to get into these world famous races."
For the time being, Leipheimer is devoted to his home state's race, ready to bring home the yellow jersey for the second consecutive year. "The Tour of California has always been a goal of mine. It's an important race no matter what is going on in the cycling world or beyond that, it is always very important to me and will always be a goal of mine.