Despite the withdrawal of its main sponsor, the team formerly known as Liberty Seguros-Würth will continue racing until the end of this season, with Manolo Saiz still involved, the Spanish press reports. Saiz was arrested earlier this week on doping charges as part of an anti-doping operation carried out by the Spanish civil guard. However, he was released after questioning, as police considered him merely a 'client' of the doping ring, and not one of the ringleaders. Four others, including former cycling team doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, remain in custody.
After his release, Saiz, together with his associate Pablo Antón, who co-own the team's management company Active Bay SL, indicated that the team will continue until at least the end of the season with Würth as the sole sponsor. However, the available funds will be dramatically reduced, as Liberty Seguros contributed approximately 70% of the €10 million/year budget. The team currently employs 52 people, including 29 riders.
"I haven't planned to stop the team," said Antón to Europa Press. The team's press officer Jacinto Vidarte confirmed to Sportwereld.be, "The future of the team is assured until the end of the season, at least, even if Liberty disappears from the jerseys."
Team rider Koen de Kort commented in his Giro d'Italia diary, "What is exactly going on now, I don't know; we are actually getting very little information here. What I do know as that the team will continue. I have my contract with a company called Active Bay and not with the sponsor itself. What happens to myself and all of us here now, we have to wait and see."
Manolo Saiz' continuing involvement with the team will likely depend on how the case unfolds. Saiz will be required to appear before the investigating judge at some stage in the near future. If he is formally implicated in this doping affair, then the Spanish cycling federation could start proceedings against him, which could result in a two year suspension, as well as the revocation of his ProTour licence. That of course will have implications for the team's racing program for the rest of the year, including its participation in the Tour de France.
Fuentes says it was old blood
Eufemiano Fuentes, a doctor who has worked with the Kelme team, among others, retired from cycling at the start of 2005 in order to spend more time with his family. He has since taken up practicing as a gynaecologist. He was one of the doctors named in the Jesus Manzano case, as one of those overseeing Kelme's alleged doping program. Fuentes denied this and gave evidence in the Manzano case to that effect.
In the current investigation the UCO is claimed to have substantial evidence implicating Fuentes and José Luis Merino Batres, who is in charge of a blood transfusion laboratory in Madrid. The UCO is reportedly in possession of four months worth of telephone, photographic, and video evidence showing athletes entering and leaving Fuentes' flats in Madrid, from which approximately a thousand doses of anabolic steroids and hormones were seized, along with two hundred packets of blood, products to manipulate it, machines to freeze it and material to perform transfusions.
Fuentes has denied that he was involved in doping athletes, and according to El Pais, his explanation for the products found in his flat was, "It is blood for private analysis; dirty blood, to throw away, and the majority of the medicines, the growth hormones and everything else, are old and worthless." He was silent when asked about the telephone, photographic and video evidence.
Comunidad Valenciana stays calm
Comunidad Valenciana's assistant sports director José Ignacio Labarta has also been implicated in "Operacion Puerto", after his flat was searched by the UCO (the drug trafficking cell of the Spanish civil guard). However, neither his team manager Vicente Belda nor sponsor Comunidad Valenciana have reacted hastily. Belda has taken the simple step of suspending Labarta from his duties until the investigations have finished. Comunidad Valenciana has a wild card for the Tour de France.
The Comunidad Valenciana team has links to Eufemiano Fuentes: he was the former doctor of Kelme, which was the predecessor of Comunidad Valenciana. His sister Yolanda Fuentes is the team's current doctor, according to L'Equipe.
The others who remain in custody are Jose Luis Merino Batres, and ex-mountain bike rider Alberto Leon.