Ballan and Santambrogio were among 32 people named by investigators in April at the conclusion of an inquiry into the activities of Italian pharmacist Guido Nigrelli and his involvement with the Lampre team.
BMC pulled Ballan and Santambrogio from racing on the eve of the Giro d’Italia, citing “new information received,” and Ochowicz said in a statement on May 2 that pair would be “held out of competition pending further details.”
Yet, on May 28, BMC reinstated Ballan and Santambrogio, with Ochowicz then explaining that the team had “never been notified by any authorities regarding these alleged actions and conversations.”
Speaking to Cyclingnews on Thursday, Ochowicz dismissed the idea that the two statements were contradictory, even though no further details clarifying the situation had emerged before Ballan and Santambrogio’s return to competition.
“I don’t see any contradiction at all,” Ochowicz said. “The statement prior to the Giro was based on the newspaper report and some other information that I gathered from other people that I respect and that I believe have given me good information in the past.
“We were under the assumption that there was going to be a further action taken by [investigators in] Mantova sometime during the Tour of Italy. That never took place, nor did have we seen anything in the public eye or anywhere else. So we are not in a position to hold our riders out of competition for an unlimited amount of time without something happening. They have not been charged with anything.
“We took that action based on what we thought the authorities were going to act on. We’re not in a position to accuse anybody of anything, whether it’s our athletes or the other athletes involved.”
Ochowicz refuted the suggestion that the time frame should not impact on a team’s decision-making process over an ethical matter such as doping.
“We don’t know if it’s an ethical matter or not,” he said. “We don’t know that or not. Do you know that? Well, do you know if it’s an ethical issue or not?”
Cyclingnews then reminded Ochowicz of the grave allegations against Ballan published by Gazzetta dello Sport in May. The Italian newspaper quoted transcripts of alleged conversations between Ballan and Nigrelli from April 2009, in which they discuss the use of growth hormone and EPO. It was also reported that investigators suspected Ballan of having undergone blood transfusions.
“Who have they been accused by?” Ochowicz said. “I don’t think it is [an ethical matter], they haven’t been accused by anybody. There have been speculative accusations, but there hasn’t been any official accusation of any kind.”
BMC had already removed Ballan and Santambrogio from racing in 2010 for their part in the same inquiry, before allowing them to return a little over a month later, although Ochowicz admitted that “no one has ever stated that the investigation was over.”
Ballan and Santambrogio in contact with investigators
Prior to the Giro, Ballan told Cyclingnews that he was due to meet with investigators in Mantova on May 12. While Ochowicz was not sure of the precise nature of his two riders’ encounters with members of the inquiry, he said that he was aware that both Ballan and Santambrogio had been in contact with investigators in Mantova.
“I know that they’ve had contact with the magistrate, but I do not have access or confirmation to what degree anything was discussed,” he said.
Ochowicz also admitted that BMC’s own contact with Ballan and Santambrogio had been limited during their period out of competition.
“They were sanctioned, so there wasn’t really any dialogue going on during the sanction period, other than when we reinstated them,” he said. “They had informed us that they had further communications with or attempted to have further communications with the magistrate involved but I don’t know if that happened or not.”
Ochowicz also denied that BMC had removed Ballan and Santambrogio from the Giro line-up order to appease the wishes of race organisers RCS Sport, or because they feared the riders would be sanctioned during the race.
“It wasn’t because we were afraid, it was because we anticipating that was going to happen,” Ochowicz said. “It didn’t matter whether it was the Giro or anywhere else.”
BMC is not the only squad with riders implicated in the Mantova inquiry. The investigation is focused on the Lampre team’s activities in 2008 and 2009, and they responded by officially installing Roberto Damiani as manager in place of Giuseppe Saronni and withholding their Mantova-implicated riders from the Giro, while Movistar, Quick Step and Liquigas-Cannondale soon followed suit.
Ochowicz said that unlike the other teams, BMC “sanctioned” its riders by not allowing them to participate in any race, although he confirmed that Ballan and Santambrogio continued to be paid during the four-week period they spent out of competition.
“I don’t have any means to validate what happened in 2008 or 2009 with people who weren’t in my organisation,” he said. “It’s a very delicate issue and you can understand our dilemma, and other people’s dilemmas in this situation, but we were the only ones that actually sanctioned riders and took some real definitive action, both last year and this year. But there have been no charges placed on anybody, and I can’t hold riders out of competition for years on end.”
BMC “doing the right thing”
Ballan returns to racing for the first time since being reinstated at the Tour de Suisse on Saturday, and Ochowicz said that the former world champion is in contention for a slot in BMC’s Tour de France squad.
“Santambrogio is not on the list, but Ballan is. He’s on the long-list, we haven’t named our start team yet,” Ochowicz said.
Ochowicz refused to be drawn on what impact an ongoing Mantova investigation would have on the possibility of extending Ballan and Santambrogio’s contracts with BMC, and he lamented that the information he has had on the matter has come from the media rather than from the investigation itself.
“I can only base decisions at this point what I’ve read in journals and really not much more than that,” he said. “I don’t have one sheet of paper in my hands from anybody. I’m not going to punish people for years in that situation. If I have something concrete in my hands from someone of some authority that has taken the due diligence to go through the investigation and is truly charging them with something, then I will take the appropriate action.”
BMC have now twice suspended and then reinstated Ballan and Santambrogio for their part in the Mantova investigation without either rider being formally charged, but Ochowicz would not discuss what might happen if more revelations were to emerge in the Italian press. On Saturday, La Repubblica published further accusations linking Ballan to the investigation.
“I can’t answer that or not because I don’t know what that information would be but I don’t want to speculate,” he said. “I’m not going to play a guessing game here.”
Ochowicz also admitted that he did not know if all of the information he had on the matter was in the public domain.
“I don’t know because I haven’t read everything that’s been in the public domain,” he said. “Again I don’t know all that’s been published all over the world about the issue.”
Nonetheless, Ochowicz was adamant that BMC was not doing anything wrong, and he also hinted at the difficulties Ballan and Santambrogio were facing on a human level in the face of such serious allegations of impropriety.
“These are human beings that we are dealing with here, and they have rights and they have feelings and emotions and we’re trying to do the right thing. Maybe people can argue that we’re not. That’s fine, everybody can have their opinion. We’re doing what we think is best in the situation that we’re in today.”