2006 was the craziest year for drugs in cycling ever. The craziness of Operation Puerto probably eclipsed anything that happened in 1998 with the Festina Affair. Now that Ivan Basso and several others are cleared of involvement from Operation Puerto for the time being the hot news is who is signing for whom.
Jan Ullrich is talking with sponsors and teams, while Tyler Hamilton has already signed with Tinkoff. “Il Bufalo” (Italian spelling) Gutierrez is signing with a small Italian team to get back to the Giro and similarly Santiago Botero is signing with a smalll Columbian team. Genevieve Jenson is getting ready to comeback. On top of all this the Tour de France will feature a prologue in London that could be won by David Millar the man who made 2006 his comeback year. Manolo Saiz may be back in the ProTour with the Astana team or some variation. The list goes on and on of riders who are making a comeback either from being cleared of involvement in Operation Puerto or having served their suspension and returning to cycling.
(pic from Eurosport)
Comunidad Valencianna (formerly Kelme) are now uninvited to the Tour de France as a result of the Operation Puerto investigation. No surprise from this announcement as it was already seen as a done deal. Jean Marie Leblanc has stated previously that no other team will be invited in place of CV. No surprise there either since at 22 teams there would be a record size for fields at the Tour de France. Plus, it would be a bit late to send out another invitation to a team such as Unibet, Barloworld, LPR or Panaria.
Today, the UCI will look at the proposed switch of sponsorships for Astana, a Kazak conglomerate to take over for Liberty Seguros. If the UCI does not approve of the switch then the currently named Wurth team could be denied a ProTour spot which would guarantee that LeBlanc and Prudomme will promptly send out another uninvite to the shattered Spanish team. Prodhomme has stated that they will not replace any team no matter how many teams get involved in the Operation Puerto scandal. He mentioned that the Tour could run with 15 or 16 team if necessary. There has not been much word on other teams being involved, perhaps Prudhomme knows some insider information, but with only two or so weeks to go, it would be dificult to imaging the UCI pulling the license of other teams.
With the smaller peloton, riders such as Levi Leipheimer might be relieved that crazy Spanish guys aren’t clogging up the road like in 2003. That is the year that Levi went home after a mass pileup that also say Tyler trudge through the Tour with a broken collarbone.
Manolo Saiz finally stepped down from being the Director Sportif of Astana-Wurth, to simply being involved with Active Bay which is the management company that runs the team. Good news for Saiz to step away as his continued presence as DS was very detrimental to the team.
Surprisingly though, Alexandre Vinokourov is not jumping ship from the Astana-Wurth formation. Sure, his presence helped bring in the new sponsor which is a conglomerate of Kazak sponsors. If the UCI does not approve the sponsor switch then Vino will be left on the sidelines only weeks before his major season goal. Does Vino have a backup plan? I couldn’t imagine Vino’s agent would not be trying to secure a backup ride with a team like Saunier Duval or Agributel. Getting on a small French team would guarantee Vino’s presence in the Tour. Only problem would be that he might not have enough support, but at least he would be in with a chance of riding. So Vino, get on the phone to Agributel right away before its too late.
Sounding a bit like Tonto talking about the Lone Ranger, Manolo Saiz believes in Roberto Heras. Heras, as you know is now serving a two year ban after tests taken during the Vuelta show that he was on the EPO juice. Saiz does not believe the tests were done accurately and that if there is justice, that we should see Heras riding again in February.
I am very sure that there are irregularities in the testing procedure for EPO. If the judicial process can look at the evidence of these errors, then we will see Roberto Heras riding again in February