Garmin-Slipstream team manager Jonathan Vaughters declined to confirm or deny rumours that 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador had been close to signing with the US team and riding this year's Tour with them.
Spaniard Contador, domestiques Benjamin Noval and Sergio Paulinho plus Contador's preferred mechanic and soigneur were set to jump ship had Astana folded, according to US media reports. Astana's Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and others would have ridden the Tour under the Livestrong-Trek name.
The rumoured split ultimately didn't happen due to a last minute sponsor payment which kept Astana together. It suggests that there is a real rift within the Kazakhstan-backed team which could lead to further tensions at the Tour de France.
"We always keep our negotiations confidential, with any rider, until they are complete," Vaughters told Cyclingnews today. "It's just best for the rider, his current sponsors and all parties involved."
The latest media reports suggest that there was indeed some truth to Contador's move. Herbalife was to be Garmin's secondary sponsor and the team sent bicycles to Contador, said an Astana source.
Armstrong commented on the story on Monday. "Just read this [the article]," he wrote on Twitter. "JL [US writer Joe Lindsey, who broke the story - ed.] may not be far off on this (for once). I'm choosing to ignore and remove myself from drama. TdF – hard enough."
Cyclingnews asked Vaughters if the arrival of a Tour winner would have caused concern for Christian Vande Velde. Vande Velde was aiming for a podium spot prior to breaking several bones in the Giro d'Italia.
"Christian is a team leader and team player," he answered. "He's a guy that only worries about the fit and function of new teammates. He thinks of this team as his family, and only wants what's best for his family. He's just not one to get caught up on specific roles.
"It'll be interesting to see if he can make it back to form, after five broken vertebrae, for the Tour. But it is pretty amazing that he's even racing the Tour."
Garmin has a doping-free reputation and it carefully assesses riders before it offers contracts. Investigations initially linked Contador and Paulinho to 2006's Operación Puerto, but they were later cleared by the International Cycling Union (UCI).
"Any rider coming to our team has to pass the same level of scrutiny," he said. "We are meticulous, cautious and very focused on this process with all riders. Just ask anyone who's ever come to this team. All of their medical records, anti-doping records and blood passport records must be released to us or we don't consider them. Period."
Astana's financial rescue means that Contador must stay put for now. Vaughters downplayed the suggestion that Garmin could sign him at the end of the season. "I would guess Contador has a contract with Astana that lasts a long time," he said.
Garmin should announce its Tour de France line-up today, with Vande Velde, David Millar, Julian Dean looking set to be part of the nine-man squad. Astana will also finalise its line-up soon.
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