Garmin-Cervelo's firing of competition director Matt White on Sunday evening (Australian time) was profoundly awkward in several ways.
Garmin rider Cameron Meyer had just clinched the overall win in the Tour Down Under, with the support of a White-directed squad stocked with young Aussies loyal to him.
White had been rumored to have one foot out the door to join a new Australian national pro team project called GreenEdge, and recently was appointed to a development job with the country's cycling federation. And title sponsor Garmin had made an unusual investment in White, adding his rapid-fire, Sydney-accented voice to the audio options on its GPS devices.
But Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters, who flew to Adelaide to pink-slip White in person, said he and the Slipstream Sports board of directors (which includes himself, team owner Doug Ellis and team president Matt Johnson) had no choice.
Vaughters said he recently learned White violated team policy by referring former Garmin rider Trent Lowe to an outside doctor. Left unstated in the press release, but readily admitted by Vaughters, was that this wasn't just any doctor. Former U.S. Postal Service physician Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral has been linked to several doping controversies and most recently was implicated by Floyd Landis as having been an integral part of organized doping at Postal. Del Moral has denied the allegations.
White's statement responding to his termination was free of rancor. Garmin and Cervelo corporate chiefs chimed in with supportive responses.
But as usual with cycling, chunks of the backstory are ugly and near impossible to confirm.
Vaughters said he learned of the White-Lowe-del Moral interaction in early January, when Lowe, fuming over a withheld paycheck, forwarded an April 2009 e-mail White sent him with del Moral's contact details and threatened to expose it if he didn't get paid.
Lowe, an amiable, slightly built former mountain biker from Australia, was part of Garmin's first Tour de France squad in 2008, but has raced poorly and sparingly over the past two seasons as he struggled with chronic fatigue syndrome, among other ailments. He had signed with the new Australian Pegasus team for this season only to see that organization collapse financially, and is currently job hunting.
Forget the contract dispute between Vaughters and Lowe, which supposedly turned on the relatively minor sin of being photographed with the Pegasus team's Scott brand bike while he was still under contract with Garmin. Forget whether Lowe actually visited del Moral -- which still hasn't been firmly established, as Lowe hasn't commented publicly -- and if he did, whether he underwent simple blood tests or something more sinister.
The important questions are whether Vaughters could have been completely unaware one of his riders had been sent to del Moral, whether he took action as soon as he knew and whether it was an isolated incident.
"I can understand why people would be skeptical," Vaughters said, and he should. Where cycling and doping are concerned, smoke equals fire most of the time, and people who follow the sport are justifiably fed up with being duped.
Vaughters said White's e-mail records on the team's internal server were reviewed to determine whether there had been any other mentions of del Moral. He said there is no indication any other Garmin riders had contact with the Spanish doctor. Until and unless that's disproven, White's action and Lowe's reaction add up to a case of poor judgment.
Garmin has been lauded in some quarters and scoffed at in others for aggressively promoting its anti-doping philosophy. This is an embarrassing blow to that image, but as things stand today, not a lethal one.