Reported by Kirsten Robbins
In a day of high emotion prior to the start of the Tour of California, the emerging USA team Rock Racing has confirmed that it will be racing in the Tour of California, after team owner Michael Ball met with riders in a late afternoon team meeting and agreed to a depleted team entering the race.
Earlier in the day, it appeared that the flamboyant owner of Rock Racing was on a collision course with race owners AEG over the composition of his squad. Ball insisted his full team be allowed to race, while AEG would only allow five of his chosen eight riders.
Ball told Cyclingnews that the five remaining riders in his squad - including the Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini who's come out of retirement to ride for Ball - definitely wanted to race, even though they could not have a full roster of eight, including the riders who were rejected by AEG: namely Santiago Botero, Tyler Hamilton and Oscar Sevilla. While Ball was adamant that these three should be allowed to start, their entry was rejected by AEG due to their alleged involvement in the recently re-opened Operación Puerto doping investigation in Spain.
It's claimed that Ball was one of the signatories on a document that gave AEG the right to refuse entry to the race to any rider it deemed to be under any kind of doping investigation.
Apparently the five remaining riders told Ball they were strongly committed to racing, in what was apparently a "very emotional meeting". However, Ball conceded that if the riders wanted to race, he would support them and agreed to have the team start on Sunday for the opening prologue.
Earlier in the day, Ball had called a press conference and there he lambasted the race owner AEG for blocking the entry of his full team. He said, "I'm steadfast in my guys riding. I'm in a position to give these guys who may or may not have made a mistake a second chance. They're willing to step up for a second chance and I'm willing to give them that chance."
The Rock Racing press conference was followed by the official Tour of California press conference, and here it was the turn of the race owners to hold their line in this controversy.
Andrew Messick from AEG told reporters, "the only (Rock Racing) riders to start are those on the official roster. With the UCI and USA Cycling we bent a few rules to include (Mario) Cipollini. Rock Racing has five riders and five will be able to start."
Ball also said that he would continue to pay for his sponsorship obligations and race entry fee for the team so it can continue to race, however, he added that he "never, ever wants to deal with (race owner) AEG again".