Tour de France organizers exclude Astana team; Alberto Contador may not defend title
PARIS -- Tour de France champion Alberto Contador likely won't get to defend his title after Tour organizers excluded the Astana cycling team from this year's race.
Astana was banned from the race Wednesday because of its past doping issues. The "damage caused by this team to the Tour de France and cycling in general, both in 2006 and 2007," led to their exclusion, organizers said.
Astana pulled out of the race last year after Alexandre Vinokourov, a pre-race favorite, tested positive for a blood transfusion after his victory in the 13th stage time trial. The team was excluded in 2006 after being linked to Operation Puerto, the Spanish blood-doping scandal in which Contador was implicated.
Contador said he was devastated by the decision.
"I never thought that it would be possible not to do the Tour the France," Contador said. "It is my race, I dream of that race. We are not invited. What can we do? It is a real blow for me and all of us at Astana. I think the decision to leave us out, and to do so on the basis of the team's past, is unfair.
"I'm afraid other sponsors can leave cycling because of what happened today. It is a sad day for cycling."
Another top Astana rider -- American Levi Leipheimer, who was third in last year's Tour -- expressed similar sentiments.
"I am in shock and I am very disappointed," Leipheimer said in a statement. "Along with my friends, family and supporters, I can't understand why we are not allowed to take part in the Tour and defend Alberto's title with two other riders capable of winning, myself included. We are all left wondering."
The Tour de France has been hit with a series of drug scandals in the past two years that have threatened to turn the race into a farce. The 2006 winner, Floyd Landis, was stripped of the title for failing a doping test. Last year, race leader Michael Rasmussen was sent home for skipping drug tests, and Vinokourov also tested positive.
Contador, from Spain, won the Tour last year riding for the American Discovery Channel team. The team disbanded late last year, and he signed a two-year deal with Astana.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme denied that Contador was the focal point of the Astana ban.
"We don't part with the winner of the Tour for the fun of it, but it is the team he chose," Prudhomme said. "Contador was in no way targeted."
Astana spokesman Philippe Maertens said Contador's contract doesn't have an escape clause that applies to this situation, suggesting that the 25-year-old Spaniard is unlikely to be able to defend his title.
Maertens said Contador's clause allowed him to get out of his contract only if Astana got caught in a doping scandal. But since this is not a new doping scandal, the clause does not apply.
After the Astana team quit the Tour last year, it was barred from the Spanish Vuelta. It also has been denied admission to this year's Giro d'Italia.
"We feel disbelief and bafflement, although we had an inkling after the Giro decision," Maertens said. "Sponsors may flee and it is not good for the fans either."
ASO, which organizes the Tour, said Astana won't be invited to any of its 2008 events. That includes Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Fleche Wallonne, Paris-Tours and others.
Astana wasn't among the 20 teams selected Wednesday by ASO for the March 9-16 Paris-Nice race.
In 2006, Astana-Wurth couldn't field the minimum six cyclists required -- after the implicated five riders were withdrawn -- and pulled out on the eve of the Tour.
ASO said Astana could be allowed back in the future if it has a 2008 season "without suspicions."
Astana has tried to revamp itself this year under new leadership, with Johan Bruyneel becoming general manager of the team. Bruyneel was the architect of Lance Armstrong's seven Tour victories.
"We have done everything to change the dynamics of the team," Bruyneel said. "New management, new riders, new philosophy. Only the name of the sponsor remained.
"Many other teams, with similar suspicious pasts that did not change management or structure, can participate without problems. Where is the consistency? Is Tour de France not losing all credibility now?"
Aside from Contador and Leipheimer, other top Astana riders include Andreas Kloden of Germany, the runner-up in 2004 and '06.
"We will fight back with the whole team," Leipheimer said.
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami, John Leicester in Paris, Raf Casert in Belgium, and Daniel Woolls in Spain contributed to this report.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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