Astana manager Bruyneel: 'I feel unfairly treated'

PARIS -- When Alberto Contador won last year's Tour de France for Discovery and Levi Leipheimer finished on the podium, team manager Johan Bruyneel was confident he had the right foundations to dominate cycling.

Now Bruyneel's Astana team is banned from France's top races by the Amaury Sports Organization. The Paris-Nice race next weekend and the Tour de France in July will start without Contador, the defending champion in both races.

"I feel unfairly treated," Bruyneel told The Associated Press by telephone Friday. "I had a long talk with Alberto [Contador] about this. He's upset, but at the same time he is young and he has already one Tour de France in his pocket, and [one] Paris-Nice."

Bruyneel guided Lance Armstrong to all seven of his Tour wins -- first with U.S. Postal and then with Discovery -- and got his eighth Tour success with Contador last year, with Leipheimer placing third.

Bruyneel switched to Astana after the 2007 Tour because Discovery's sponsorship ended, and he took Leipheimer and Contador with him to the Kazakh-owned team, which also features 2004 Tour runner-up Andreas Kloeden of Germany.

Astana is not among the 20 teams invited to start Paris-Nice on March 9 because ASO -- which also owns the Tour -- believes Astana's reputation has damaged the sport.

Under former ownership, Astana was kicked off last year's Tour because Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for a blood-doping violation. Astana was also thrown out in 2006 by Tour director Christian Prudhomme because several of its riders were linked to the Operation Puerto blood-clinic scandal.

The International Cycling Union's president Pat McQuaid strongly criticized the exclusion of Astana from this year's Tour. ASO said it wants to improve the image of the sport.

Bruyneel, a former stage winner, blamed the split between ASO and UCI for putting off potential sponsors.

Bruyneel thought he had found a new sponsor to replace Discovery, but said the ASO-UCI conflict helped cause the collapse shortly after the 2007 Tour.

"They were excited, they were ready to do it and wanted to do it. I guess their marketing team has looked at it from a different angle," he said.

Instead, Bruyneel went with Astana's offer.

ASO won't invite Astana to any of its 2008 events -- including Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Fleche Wallonne, Paris-Tours -- while the Giro d'Italia has also turned the team away.

Prudhomme said Contador was not the focal point of the Astana ban. Contador was briefly linked to Operation Puerto but never charged, and has never tested positive.

"We don't part with the winner of the Tour for the fun of it, but [Astana] is the team he chose," Prudhomme said. "Contador was in no way targeted."

Bruyneel met Prudhomme in December, and thought he had done enough to reassure him.

"We talked about a few things that were to be done and I think we met all those requests ... until 15 minutes before the official statement was sent out about the non-selection of Astana," Bruyneel said.

Bruyneel wants a new meeting, but does not expect the French-owned ASO to change their decision.

"I am tempted to think that will not be the case. It was a pretty strong decision they made," Bruyneel said.