Vacansoleil defends Flecha against alleged links to Operación Puerto

The Dutch Vacansoleil-DCM team has defended its Spanish classics specialist Juan Antonio Flecha from accusations that he was a client of Spanish doping doctor Eufemanio Fuentes back in 2006. The morning prior to his participation in the Scheldeprijs, a Dutch newspaper Volkskrant made the claims based on its own investigation of the Operación Puerto documents. The report linked Flecha to the code name Clasicómano or number 33 in the coded client list; allegations which, if proven, could lead to the immediate dismissal of the 35-year-old Spaniard.

Frank Kwanten, commercial manager and press officer for Vacansoleil-DCM and team director Aart Vierhouten spoke to Cyclingnews about the accusations. The duo said that they informed Flecha the morning of the race about the article. "He reacted calm as the story didn't come up since yesterday. It was to be expected that one day something would happen with it. There's not much more to be said about it, not from his side either. He shrugged and said that we knew what his position was in this case. This story doesn't change anything to that," Vierhouten said.

Vierhouten added that the hunt for riders by newspapers wasn't something the teams should just accept. "This has been going on for about two years now. It does not mean that once a rider is named in a news story - like this story - that we should send him home with his suitcase right away. That's a bit short-sighted. That is why we, as a team, stand behind our rider," Vierhouten said.

Back in 2006, Flecha rode for the now much-accused Rabobank team. After a four-year stint at the Dutch team, Flecha moved to Team Sky for three years before joining Vacansoleil.

The claims from journalists Mark Miserus and Robert-Jan Friele were based on entries in the Operación Puerto files from 2006 in which a rider with the code 'Clasicomano' or '33' withdrew blood on January 19, April 24 (twice) and May 13 2006. According to that same plan the blood was re-injected twice, on March 5, before Tirreno-Adriatico, and March 30, three days before the Tour of Flanders. That year Flecha finished fourth in Paris-Roubaix after an aggressive ride on the cobbles.

During the rider's last visit in May, doctor Fuentes was shadowed by the Spanish police but there seem to be no phone taps in which Flecha appears. Many top riders were linked and later banned to Operación Puerto, including Ivan Basso, Alejandro Valverde, Santiago Botero, Jörg Jaksche, Jan Ullrich and Michele Scarponi.

Last October Rabobank announced it would withdraw its sponsorship from professional cycling due to links of its past riders to doping, including Michael Rasmussen, Rolf Sörensen, Levi Leipheimer, Michael Boogerd and Thomas Dekker, all of whom have recently admitted to their misdeeds. However, other riders from the 2006 squad such as Graeme Brown and Erik Dekker have denied any involvement in doping.

The Dutch cycling federation (KNWU) has just completed a survey of the riders and staff of the three Dutch WorldTour teams in which each member was required to truthfully declare any past doping offences. No new admissions were made after those of Grischa Niermann and Rudi Kemna, both currently suspended from directeur sportif duties with the Rabobank Continental and Argos-Shimano teams, respectively.

Under the agreement, if the allegations against Flecha can be substantiated, he would face immediate dismissal from the team, but according to Kwanten he is not bothered.

"Flecha is super professional and has been building up to this part of the season since November. He wants peace of mind and this is not beneficial in that way. He will not comment. It's useless to react right now and we agree.

"We don't want to ignore this news but we will explore the available information - with Spanish authorities and the author - before sending him home. Flecha will focus on today and on Sunday. We want to find out on what basis the author is writing this information," Kwanten said.

"The article mentions the two times we questioned him about these accusations. First before we hired him and then a second time for the Declaration of Behavior. We specifically asked him if he was Clasicómano. On both occasions he denied the link. Besides that we were able to add the blood profiles from the biological passport since 2008. We asked the UCI whether there were any investigations in which he was named. We do that for all our riders. From there we start working with our doping expert Douwe de Boer. We don't hire riders which are under major suspicion or manipulations are assumed."

Kwanten said that the team can only wait for further evidence before taking any action. "Now it's a matter of coming up with the necessary evidence. We will ask [the journalists] to view their sources. For now it's difficult to keep [Flecha] sidelined, taking employment rights in mind," Kwanten said.

Back in 2010 the Dutch team signed Spanish Grand Tour specialist Ezequiel Mosquera but shortly afterwards the rider tested positive for a banned product Hydroxyethyl Starch (HES). The team kept him sidelined until a verdict was called and eventually Mosquera never rode for the team. "That was different," Kwanten said, "because the doping claims were leaked by the Spanish federation who said they found a product of the second category. It allows one to race on while being further investigated. Eventually they found something."

The team's main sponsor Vacansoleil is currently examining its investment in the cycling team. In addition to the bad press on Mosquera, the team has also had to face similar instances with Riccardo Ricco and the more recent allegations against Jose Rujano and now Flecha. Team manager Daan Luijckx denied this in last week's interview with Cyclingnews that the allegations bother him in finding a sponsor.

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