Alexandre Vinokourov has accused the European press of seeking to "destroy" the Astana team in the weeks leading up to the UCI Licence Commission's decision on its WorldTour status for the 2015 season.
Astana was ultimately awarded a licence on Wednesday despite the recent series of positive tests on the team, although reports in the Italian press last week claimed that there was also evidence from the Padova doping inquiry linking the team to the banned doctor Michele Ferrari. When contacted by Cyclingnews last week, the Astana squad had declined to comment on the allegations.
"Around Astana there was too much noise. It was impossible to comment on all of the rumours about us, so we ignored them and focused on working with the UCI," Vinokourov told Kazakhstani publication Vremya. "Now that all the difficulties are behind us, the team will consult with its lawyers. I believe that we must receive an apology at the least from the European press for the libel that has struck the team in recent months."
The Astana general manager singled out the Italian press, in particular, and claimed its coverage has been tempered by jealousy at the fact that Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru are riding for a foreign team.
Gazzetta dello Sport last week reported that Dr. Ferrari had been photographed at the Astana training camp in Montecatini Terme in 2013, and alleged Vinokourov had arranged for at least ten Astana riders to be coached by Ferrari in 2010. Ferrari has denied links to the Astana team.
"The goal is the same – to destroy Astana," Vinokourov said. "They envy us, especially the Italians. Two of the best Italian riders compete in the colours of a Kazakhstani team, and they do not like it. For example, [they don't like] that Nibali rode the Tour of Almaty but did not ride the Tour of Lombardy. They also wanted to see him ride the Giro but he chose the Tour de France because for him the interests of the team come above everything.
"In addition, out of the 70 members of our staff, 20 are Italian. We invited the best specialists and they chose Astana. It is clear that they don't like it although I don't understand this reaction. An Italian wins the main race of the season yet they throw mud at his team. Where’s the logic?"
Vinokourov confirmed that the Tour de France winner Nibali would have been free to leave the team had it not been awarded a WorldTour place and then failed to win an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Astana must now undergo an audit by the University of Lausanne, while UCI President Brian Cookson has warned that its WorldTour licence remains "very much provisional" and that further positive tests or revelations from the Padova inquiry could see it revoked.
"One misstep and they will punish not only you but the whole team," said Vinokourov, who tested positive for blood doping while a rider with Astana in 2007. "In any case, next year we will prove that Astana has won and will win honestly, without doping. We will make everyone respect our team."
The UCI Licence Commission focused exclusively on Astana’s recent positive doping tests – two on the WorldTour team and three on the since-suspended Continental squad – but did not consider the allegations aired in the Italian press which have linked the team to Dr. Michele Ferrari, who is banned for life by both the Italian Olympic Committee and the US Anti-Doping Agency.
Vinokourov was coached by Ferrari during his time as a rider, although he said last week that he had stopped working with the Italian in 2007, the year of his positive test for blood doping. In a report on France Télévision show "Stade 2", broadcast on Sunday evening, Ferrari himself once again denied that he had been present at the Astana training camp in Montecatini in November of last year.
"It's an absurd accusation: the last time I was there was 25 years ago, and I had a very precise reason – to buy the biscottini. Do you know them?" Ferrari said in a curt phone exchange with Italian journalist Marco Bonarrigo.
Ferrari went on to deny that he had ever trained Vincenzo Nibali. "Never, that's an absurd affirmation too."
Asked which riders he currently trained, Ferrari said: "Nobody. I don't train any riders anymore. Good evening."