Canadian Cyclist


February 16/08 11:04 am - Tour of California: Pre-race report and photos

Posted by Editoress on 02/16/08


Today was supposed to be a chance for organizers to boast about the third edition of the Amgen Tour of California (AToC), which will start tomorrow with a 3.4 kilometre Prologue time trial through downtown Palo Alto and the Stanford University campus (the first rider is off at 1:00 pm PST/4:00 pm EST).

Instead, their feel good message and stroking of sponsors was overshadowed by an ongoing controversy about whether certain members of the Rock Racing team will be allowed to start, and the exclusion of Astana from both the Giro and the Tour.

The morning was taken up by a press conference called by Rock Racing team owner Michael Ball. Ball, wearing the green and blue team uniform spent half an hour before a packed room passionately declaring that it was unfair for AToC organizers to ban the entry of certain members of his team because they are currently under investigation due to the reopened Operacion Puerto affair in Spain.

All teams had to sign an agreement with the AToC organization that they would not included riders in their rosters which were under investigation, and AToC determined that the reopened Puerto investigation met that criteria.

Ball began the conference by listing his eight rider roster, insisting that all would race: Mario Cipollini, Santiago Botero, Michael Creed, Tyler Hamilton, Doug Ollerenshaw, Victor Hugo Pena, Freddie Rodriguez and Oscar Sevilla.

There were two points of interest in this roster: first, Cipollini has finally been confirmed as coming out of retirement to race for Rock Racing, and second, that the preliminary roster of teams listed by the organizers has five riders, with Hamilton, Sevilla and Botero all out.

The organizers will neither confirm or deny that these are indeed the riders, citing confidentiality, however, that has pretty much been confirmed from many sources.

Ball began the conference with a long and, at times, rambling manifesto of how cycling is destroying itself by attacking riders and teams (such as his), and eroding the rights of the riders. He appeared to state at one point that riders who have been caught in positive tests should be rehabilitated by still being allowed to race, saying that he would support and pay his riders no matter what.

When asked about how he planned to react if Hamilton, Sevilla and Botero were not allowed to start, Ball said that AToC organizers had 24 hours to fix the problem, and did not specify what his response would be, and whether he would pull his team (like he did at the Los Angeles World Cup for unspecified reasons).

"I'm steadfast in my guys riding," Ball said. "I'm in a position to give these guys who may or may not have made a mistake a second chance. They're willing to step up for a second chance and I'm willing to give them that chance."

The recent exclusion of the Astana professional cycling team from the Tour de France is a perfect example of the mistakes being made at the sport's highest levels, Ball stated.

"The fact that the Tour of California is allowing Astana in this race is good. Bravo," he said. "They (Astana) should be allowed to race. I support that.

"You are innocent until proven guilty. But for there to be a wholesale swipe across a team or an individual who in the past was under suspicion, that's the past. This is time to make a difference in this sport. We're trying to move forward and make a difference.

"The past is the past. We have a moment right now to change this sport. Let's move forward. If it means giving these guys amnesty, do it. Stop digging up graves. This sport is going to wither on a vine and die if this continues. Sponsors are bailing out. If things continue with these conditions, I can't do anything else but exit. It doesn't make any sense business-wise."

"We live as a team, and we'll die as a team," said Ball, thumping his fist on the table for emphasis.

In the latter half of the press conference, when Ball took questions from the media, he was flanked at the table by lawyer Maurice Suh, the same lawyer Floyd Landis is using in his anti-doping battle. As the questions became more pointed, Ball took to accepting whispered comments from Suh, and his responses became more vague.

At the conclusion of the conference Rock Racing handed out copies out letters they have sent and received from a variety of sources, including one from UCI President Pat McQuaid stating that there is "no legal impediment" that would not allow Oscar Sevilla to race. However, McQuaid also said that the UCI "respects the organisers' right to select the teams and riders". According to Ball, these documents support his contention that the riders are not currently under investigation.

However, elsewhere in the letter from McQuaid, the UCI president states "Many organisers have taken the position that they do not want riders implicated in Puerto in their races. The UCI, as the governing body for cycling cannot support this position from a legal standpoint even if the UCI agrees with it from a moral point of view."

**We will be posting video excerpts from the Rock Racing conference once we sort through all the material.

A few hours later AToC organizers held their conference, with some of the top riders in attendance, including George Hincapie (High Road), David Millar (Slipstream Chipotle), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Jens Voigt (CSC), Bobby Julich (CSC), Freddie Rodriguez (Rock Racing) and defending champion Levi Leipheimer (Astana).

The conference opened with statements from organizers and sponsors, including the following tidbits:

- AEG VP Andrew Messick stated that it was the UCI which confirmed to them that Hamilton, Sevilla and Botero were part of the Puerto investigation, and that all teams had signed an undertaking. Therefore it appears that AToC is using a loophole to exclude riders which would cause them embarrassment and a conflict with the strong stance required by their title sponsor Amgen.

- there are five former and current world champions in the race - Cipollini, Freire, Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and Paolo Bettini (Quick Step)

- there will be a total 175 blood and urine tests completed before the start of racing tomorrow

- the organizers have added a live satellite feed link for web coverage

Once that was over, they moved onto comments from the riders, the majority of whom said that tomorrow's field is every bit as deep as the Tour. Leipheimer was also asked about the exclusion of Astana from both the Giro and the Tour, and took the opportunity to express deep disappointment with the situation and pointed out that the team was entirely new (much of it ex-Discovery), and that the organizers waited until very late to exclude them.

"They (ASO) could have done this last August, but they waited until now. Why?"

He also revealed that a group had started a campaign to push for Astana's admission to the Tour -

The riders were also put on the spot with a question asking if Michael Ball's assertion was true that he had received much support from within the peloton for his fight to get his riders admitted to the race. All looked distinctly uncomfortable, and most reiterated that it was important that sport should be working hard to clean up its image. No one made a statement supporting Rock Racing.

Freddie Rodriguez, the Rock Racing representative at the press conference, said "the team is really excited to be here, we're really motivated to race. The team is a little different with our style, but the sport needs that right now. I think our position is the same as Astana with the Tour de France. Our team has followed every step, as required by every governing body."

**We will be posting video excerpts from the AToC conference once we sort through all the material.

NOTE: Rock Racing Team issued a late press release saying that the team will race short-handed.

"Rock Racing Team Owner Michael Ball said the team's riders and staff collectively decided Saturday night not to pull out of the race after race organizer AEG declared that three riders on the team's original race roster ˆ Tyler Hamilton, Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla ˆ would not be allowed to start."


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