Clerc refutes "Bruyneel/Armstrong penalty" in Astana exclusion
The Tour de France organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) knows 2008 will be a crucial year for the biggest cycling race in the world. Tainted by doping scandals these past two years, this year's Tour is aspired to be one of the cleanest ever, and strong measures have been taken to ensure this. Not only the anti-doping controls carried out by the French Anti-doping Agency AFLD will hopefully deter the cheaters; also the 100,000 Euro fine hanging over the team's heads in case of a positive finding should have an effect on team managers to get a tight grip on their riders.
At least, this is what ASO president Patrice Clerc hopes for. "The teams should be the first ones to know what games their riders are playing," Clerc said to the Telegraaf on Wednesday. "Teams that are still taking a risk now [of selecting doubtful riders for the Tour - ed.] are doing great harm to their sport. Cycling is so much under pressure that any other incident now will do immense damage. We, too, realise that there will always be cheaters, in any sports, but the 100,000 Euro fine for any team that has a positive doping case is a signal. There will be no mercy. teams, that are taking risks now and are caught will not be welcome at the Tour in the next years."
ASO is determined to act against the use of performance-enhancing substances or methods, as the company has suffered substantial loss of credibility for its biggest event because of it. Still, Clerc said that the damage of doping had been greater to the sport of cycling as a whole than to the Tour de France itself, but, "if the Tour doesn't survive it, then the whole cycling sport will be destroyed."
Hence the Tour bosses' tenacity to eradicate any doubt cast over the event, which would have included inviting the Astana team, at the centre of two doping scandals tarnishing the Tour these last two years: Operación Puerto and the Vinokourov positive. "We will see next year if there really have been any changes," he said on the possible redemption of the squad now managed by Johan Bruyneel. And brushed off any allegations that the exclusion of Astana had any deeper reasons concerning the relationship between the Tour bosses and the team's manager, former sports director of Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour de France winner had stated this in a recent interview with procycling.
"Leaving [Astana] out is simply a decision [ASO] took as a Johan Bruyneel/Lance Armstrong penalty," Armstrong had alleged. "They have double standards by keeping in the CSCs and the Rabobanks, all the guys that have a laundry list of problems."
"We don't have anything against Bruyneel and Armstrong at all," Clerc assured, even though he criticised the Belgian. "Bruyneel says that Armstrong was bigger than the Tour. I think that is a rather arrogant opinion. There is no man that is above an event or happening. A chapter can never be more important than its book."
As to the invitation of Rabobank, at the centre of last year's exclusion of the maillot jaune Michael Rasmussen, Clerc admitted that "Rasmussen should have never even been at the start; Rabobank's choice was irresponsible." Still, the Dutch team was admitted again to this years' race.
"Inside the Tour organisation, we discussed the invitation of Rabobank at length. It was not a unanimous vote. When Rabobank realised that the rider had lied on its whereabouts, they immediately took him out of the race. And on the very instant they became aware that the team manager could have had knowledge of the situation, he too was set aside. You cannot reproach Rabobank that they didn't take any action. That, ultimately, saved them."
Clerc also criticised the International Cycling Union (UCI) once again, as "they did not stick to their own rules and allowed Rasmussen to take the start." Meanwhile, the ASO president was not fearful of any new doping scandals leaked by the UCI during the Tour, as some observers have been suggesting.
"Everyone knows the situation. I cannot imagine that the UCI holds off any information until the Tour to harm the race. That would be too obvious. Everyone knows that they are trying to destroy the biggest event in their sport. It would be criminal behaviour. I think that the UCI would then be in a very distressful position."
But despite all its efforts to protect the Tour de France, organiser ASO knows that it does not have the means of the sports authority to chase the cheaters. "We are only a race organiser," Clerc added. "We don't make the rules and we don't have the competence of police and judges. Ultimately, we are powerless."