Monday, February 18, 2008

A Stain on Yellow


Astana is out of the Tour de France. No sooner than High Road was refused entry to the Giro, RCS reconsidered and gave the team a spot. And Operation Puerto has been reopened. Even Hollywood blockbusters don’t have this many twists of plot.

There can be little doubt that ASO and RCS want drugs out of cycling. And frankly, if it’s what ASO and RCS wants, then that is where the sport will go; the small race organizers don’t have much influence for good or ill.

Here’s what’s so fascinating about Europe: The complete lack of rationality in the administration of justice. Last year at the Tour (as if you don’t remember) Astana wasn’t the only embarrassment. Certainly Cofidis and T-Mobile brought some amount of embarrassment to the event courtesy Christian Moreni and Patrick Sinkewitz. But can anything in the entire 2007 season compare to Michael Rasmussen being fired from Rabobank?

So how is it that Rabobank will be at Paris-Nice and, ergo, the Tour de France? ASO clearly deserves the right to restrict invitations to only those teams that meet its standards. When asked about Rabobank, Patrice Clerc responded that the problems with Rabobank were limited to one rider and a director: Michael Rasmussen and Theo de Rooy, respectively, and not with the sponsor. Similarly, the problems at Astana could be said to be limited to a director, Mark Biver, and two riders, Alexander Vinokourov and Andrei Kashechkin. Umm, so how are they different again?

To be fair, the French are suspicious of Johan Bruyneel the way cats are suspicious of dogs. He’s the only team director with more than five victories to his name and the fact that he replicated his previous success with Armstrong with the second youngest Tour winner ever give them ample reason to worry that Contador could stand on the podium until his 33rd birthday—another nine years. ASO’s exclusion of Astana is as much about Bruyneel as it is Vinokourov et al.

Is refusing entry to Astana supportable? Maybe. But the only way it can seem a remotely just decision is if Rabobank is refused entry as well.

The problem with ASO’s inconsistent selection process is that it makes their choices seem arbitrary. If we were discussing rock musicians or starlets, irrational would be a selling point, but when it’s a corporation organizing the largest annual sporting event it’s a little scary.

The worst part is the irony. The stain on cycling caused by doping has tarnished the Tour, though not irreparably. However, if ASO uses arbitrary criteria to exclude teams, or applies objective criteria inconsistently, their disrespect for clean riders will cause a new problem that doping control can’t solve. There is no stain like crazy.

Photo courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

22 comments:

Kro said...

I think you've nailed it on the head - the ban is on Bruyneel, not Astana directly. Even if you don't take David Walsh's stuff as completely objective journalism, if 5% of the stuff out there about LA, Disco, and Bruyneel is accurate, the whole Astana move comes into new light. Basso didnt seem to be a problem for Bruyneel and Lance, and Contador is linked to Puerto. While I think the Tour is gonna suck this year, I have a feeling that there's a lot more under the water than we know, and it doesnt really surprise me. Sucks all around, but Bruyneel needs to take some ownership instead of standing around all outraged...

Anonymous said...

It's all about image. In France, this move by ASO is being hailed as a huge step in the right direction.

ASO cannot afford another 2007. They are worried that with Johan at the wheel, they may get another 2007. At this stage in the game, justice has gone out the window. It's everyone for themselves and ASO is doing what ASO feels it has to do to protect it's product.

Boz said...

This would be like NASCAR banning Penske for a season w/o proven infractions. The pompus asses that run cycling couldn't successfully run a popcorn stand in the middle of a movie theater. We in the US just aren't wired the same way, we have a hard time with the heavy-handed arbitrary way things are done by the Euros. Guilty until proven innocent is not our style. Didn't the Frrench learn from that nasty revolution due to the disreguard for any sort of rights for the workers and general "let them eat cake" attitude. It's just too bad this great sport isn't stronger in the US so it could be run ASO ect. could be shooed away like some annoying bug.

Forrest said...

Johan Bruyneel hired Basso when it was clear he was guilty. I doubt Astana of new is any different than Astana of old. Thats why! Cycling is such a cool sport, but guess what, I am not even tuning into the cycling circus anymore. I want to so badly, but its a train wreck. The riders need a union, the rules need to be clear, and to move past Puerto, those riders implicated need to give DNA and be cleared or serve their suspension.

Anonymous said...

I think the argument ASO is making re: the difference between Astana + Rabobank is the history of high profile doping issues -- Heras at the Vuelta, Saiz + 10 implicated in Puerto, Vino working with Michelle Ferrari even after he was receiving extra special scrutiny...followed by 2007's TdF incidents.

So add a team with a history of team-wide doping, add Bruyneel + his signing on Basso, Contador's less than satisfactory exoneration from Puerto, and a bevy of rumors + hearsay about USPS and Disco...

I do think a good argument can be made for High Road's exclusion as well, though I'll admit to being more inclined to believe Stapleton is trying to improve the situation than Bruyneel.

Ken Bloomer said...

As long as there is as much prize money and potential sponsor money at stake, people will work the gray areas in everyway possible to win. They will do so until the ASO, UCI and others re-write the rules to bring those back in the parameters that the powers that be deem acceptable. It has always been that way and will continue to be that way.

The ASO has banned Johan, no doubt. They didn't want Lance, nor Johan, and now have a reason to keep him out, albeit arbitrary. They kept Rijs out last year, it will be interesting to see if he is welcomed back into the fold, or if he will be facing a longer ban from the Tour. Maybe if Johna would excuse himself - there's how you get in Levi - then Astana may start? But I don't think the ASO will do that with them using the excuse of the ban being on Astana, not Johan. Plus there is the baggage of Contador possibly starting as well. The only way I see it happening is that ASO has a say in which riders from the Astana stable are allowed to start, with some rigorous testing before and during the Tour.

Stevo said...

Only someone that could compare NASCAR to Pro road racing could find it possible to label the French heavy handed, and call them out for it, while extolling the supposed virtues of the US way of doing things. Heavy handed? America? Noooo...

ASO doesn't want the Johan + Lance dope-a-thon to continue. Big deal, its better for the sport in the long run.

There's as much out there against LA as there is Clemmens...

velomonkey said...

I agree with some of the comments on the is board - when you look at Johan over the course of time and you look at Astana from last year it's a negative and a negative. Least we forget that Johan was the first one to cry for the exclusion of Basso from the tour while he was on CSC, but then we BASSO left CSS Johan was the first to hire him. That's called having your cake and eating it, too.

Look, I know there is no hard bust on Disco or Postal, but like Vaughter's said, you should almost look at the teams that don't get busted. Add to that riders like Landis and Tyler that leave and then get busted and there is a lot of smoke - let's not even start on LA.

Least we forget, the tour and bike racing are not democracies. I say take everyone's DNA and let's call it a day - doping will stop real quick.

Anonymous said...

How long can homologous blood doping be detected by the current test being employed? I'm curious if ASO knows, without doubt, that Vino was doping following the Rasmussen fiasco.

matt said...

Man i totally agree so crazy but i can't see why whole teams should be punished. But maybe i'm just sappy about some riders i can't help it

Anonymous said...

Boz, as Stevo notes, it's pretty deluded to argue that "we in the US" have a hard time with heavy-handed arbitrary practices, and that guilty until proven innocent is not "our style."

Ever heard of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act? "Weapons of mass destruction?""Enemy combatant?" "Waterboarding?" Posse comitatus or the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act?

Dude, ride your bike, clear your head and stop "drinking the kool-aid."

Matt said...

I think one other thing is certain now Freddy:

Basso absolutely will NOT sign with Astana now when his suspension is over.

Both Basso and Astana cannot afford a marriage at this point.

spokejunky said...

The whole common man thing needs to be brought back into the sport. Suffering transforming the underdog into a mythical rider. I don't know who the old tour historian in Hell on Wheels is but he does a good job showing the grit of the sport.

Art said...

All the way back to Liberty Seguros, it's been an annual drug scandal with these guys. And every year they say they've re-organized. It's going to be different this year. And it's not. With the Pro Tour entitlement system, it didn't have to be. Team owners just had to re-shuffle the deck after a scandal and know they'd be back in next year. Without that entitlement, the sport is an open market. There's extra pressure for clean teams not to hire dirty riders, and clean riders not to sign with dirty teams. People like Johan, who have made decisions to try to cut corners (like the Basso incident) become unemployable. The only business the UCI has in any of this is ensuring that the teams and race organizers all know where they stand before rider contracts get inked.

Jason said...

I too can not fathom how Robobank is allowed in?? WTF? Then again if they banned every team that had embarrassed the sport in the past year or so, there would be no racing. Maybe ASO just picks team names out of a hat?

s10ny said...

One additional thing that must be considered is, at least from ASO's perspective, Astana has been banned or dropped from two consecutive Tours for doping-related infractions. While the personnel may have changed, the sponsor and team brand have not. ASO is in a difficult position of having to balance revenues, in the form of sponsor advertising, with maintaining a fair competitive sports environment. Ultimately it's up to their discretion to invite whichever teams they feel will create the best Tour. If the exclusion of Astana this year means the inclusion of an exciting team such as Barloworld, then so be it. I am hoping Astana will accept their fate, do their time, and return to challenge again in 2009.

Boz said...

The main difference to me is the quilty until proven inoccent vs inoccent until proven guilty. The current group of Astana riders haven't been convicted of any offense but are out. Public finger pointing, grand-standing and "good of the sport" posturing still hasn't produced a positive test. I'm no Astana or Bruyneel fan, but fair is fair. All I' was trying to say is give them their day in court with hard evidence against them before DQing a whole team. How silly does it look to the rest of the sproting world to kick out top competitors on the grounds that they may possibly cheat? Their is millions of Euros at stake, and the fans want to see the best compete for them. It's going to be a second rate TDF this year, at best.

Jim said...

Two points about some earlier comments.

Several people have mentioned Contador's suspect involvement in Puerto. Tour Director Prudhomme has said Contador is welcome to race, just not with Astana, so that is not play into Astana's exclusion.

Second, someone mentioned that one certainty is that Basso will not be signed by Astana when his suspension is up. Obviously, because he is not allowed to sign with a Pro Tour team.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the hypocrisy which makes you wonder about ASO's true motive. Don't invite all scandal related teams or let all the top teams in, not this random stuff.

Art said...

boz: ASO doesn't owe anyone a day in court. They are a private entity that is holding an event at a significant financial risk. That risk turned out to be a bad one last year when German TV pulled the plug during last year's race. A team or rider suing to be allowed to race would be like taking your neighbor to court to be allowed to watch tv in his living room. If you can't give him a credible assurance that you're not going to spill beer on his carpet, he has every right not to let you in. Whatever terms ASO defined as a credible assurance, some teams have met them and some haven't.

UltraRob said...

I agree that the Astana ban has to be about Bruyneel. Plenty of reason to believe his riders dope but don't get caught while on his team. It's still a bummer that the whole team is banned. I'd like to see Levi have a chance to ride but then he had to have a good idea what could be going on.

Anonymous said...

With the implication that USPS & Disco are/were a "dirty" system, then how come everyone still loves Hincapie and Leipheimer? George rode there for about 10 years and Levi rode there for 2 or 3 before jumping to Rabobank.

Why is it "so obvious" that Hamilton and Landis were products of a dirty system and the Lance "just never got caught"? Could it be that Landis and Hamilton chose to begin doping after they left Bruyneel's team?

I'm in agreement that this ban on Astana probably has as much to do with Bruyneel as anything else, but I don't understand the double standards regarding his record and his past and current riders.