Thursday, August 06, 2009

Astarloza's Saga

Seems like the Spaniards are upset about the achievements by the Euskaltel Euskadi team in general and by Mikel Astarloza in particular during the recent edition of the Tour de France. And when a Spaniard is mad at a Basque usually what happens is that the Spaniards uses the Spanish institutions as repressive tools. Now the Spanish cycling big bosses are accusing Mikel Astarloza o using illegal substances, but Mikel is not bowing to them so he called a press conference to talk about the issue, this is the coverage by Daily Peloton:

Astarloza declares innocence

"I have not taken anything illegal." Something about this case makes no sense.

"I have not taken anything illegal," Mikel Astarloza stated bluntly on Aug 4 at a press conference in Donostia-San Sebastian.

Astarloza read a statement, with family and friends behind him. Both Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and former teammate and current Astana rider Haimar Zubeldia were part of the group showing their support for Astarloza.

Astarloza took no questions after his statement in the course of which he observed that now there is a "biological passport, it is crazy to dope. It would be sporting suicide." He stressed that he has always been "scrupulous" in following rules and has always kept the UCI informed of his whereabouts. He stated that had he intended to dope he would have "provided a false address" or otherwise have avoided UCI-sanctioned testers.

The Euskaltel-Euskadi rider admitted that "I know it is my word against the test lab, but I am innocent." Astarloza added that whatever the result of the investigation he has "lost faith in the system."

At one stage during the press conference, Astarloza held up paperwork reportedly from the Madrid lab that had conducted the test and said "there is evidence to doubt the credibility of the analysis," but he did not elaborate, preferring, he said, to explain what he meant at the "right time."

"I'm completely sure of my innocence. Completely," Astarloza said, promising that "whether the result of the second test is negative, I will not stop until I find out where the result came from. And I will. Whatever if takes, I'll find out."

Astarloza and the team, which has announced that it is standing behind the rider, await results of the B sample, which the rider immediately requested be tested after learning by e-mail from the UCI last Friday of a "non normal" test for EPO in an A sample taken out of competition on June 26.


Now that Mikel Astarloza has spoken, it is legitimate to ask the question "why should we believe this rider when so many other protestations of innocence have turned out to be just so much bluster?"

And this is a good question.

First, it is worth noting that the timing of the Astarloza case couldn't look worse for him. Less than a month before the June 26 out-of-competition test that is at the heart of the case against Astarloza, Euskaltel-Euskadi teammate Iñigo Landaluze tested positive for the third-generation EPO CERA during this year's Dauphiné Libéré.

But here, already, there are notable differences in what happened next. Landaluze issued a statement admitting the results, did not request the B sample be tested, made an explicit statement that no one on the team knew anything about his doping and, essentially, retired from racing. Euskaltel-Euskadi made no comments in support of the rider.

Not so when Astarloza received news of the UCI sanctions last Friday. The team almost immediately posted a statement on its web site expressing its strong support for the Tour de France stage winner. More importantly, the team announced that its support for Astarloza was based not on his word but, rather, on the fact that "after failing to find any abnormality in the internal controls...we will stand by the cyclist and support his innocence until proven otherwise." In other words, other blood and urine tests contemporaneous with the June 26 test show no evidence of EPO use. In this day and age, the team's statement is a remarkably frank expression of support. It also indicates that the foundation which manages the team is confident about its own internal controls.

The team has committed to standing by Astarloza at a time when it is under enormous pressure financially, and the decision to publicly support a rider accused of doping cannot have been taken lightly. Team manager, soon to be president, Miguel Madariaga is struggling to secure sufficient funding beyond 2010. Already, the 2009 squad and its program is smaller than its 2008 counterpart. [Among those affected by that retrenchment was Haimar Zubeldia, who moved to Astana and looks set to go to Radioshack but who nonetheless appeared with Astarloza at the Aug. 4 press conference.]

The foundation is up against two significant challenges. The first is the struggling economy in western Europe, which resulted in a downturn of 2.5% in the first quarter GDP of 2009 in the Basque region of Spain, home to almost all the team's sponsors. Additionally, the most recent elections in the Basque country saw a change in the governing party from a nationalist grouping to one led by the Socialist party with closer ties to Madrid. It's not clear just how much the Socialists will want to continue supporting an implicitly nationalist organization.

The contract extension recently offered Koldo Fernandez through 2010 contains a clause committing him to Euskaltel-Euskadi in 2011 if it continues to hold a UCI pro tour license. This wording suggests the foundation has still not ruled out the option it was exploring last year of racing as a continental squad. It has commitments from ASO, the Tour de France organizers, that it will be invited to participate if it changes its status, and such a change would allow it to shrink its budget, compete in all Basque country events, Le Tour, and, presumably, La Vuelta, and spare it the need to go to Australia, Poland, and other such places far beyond the market of its sponsors. That invitation to the Tour is likely to evaporate if the Astarloza ruling stands.

Sponsors will have an immediate out clause in their contracts in the event of the team getting mired in significant doping scandals, and you only have to look at Liberty Seguros-Würth and Saunier Duval-Prodir to see how quickly sponsors can run.

A cynic would argue at this stage that Euskaltel-Euskadi has no choice but to stand behind Astarloza. If the rider does turn out to have used EPO the future of the foundation and the team would be tenuous at best. The Landaluze case reminded people that in 2001 Txema del Olmo tested positive for EPO and was fired, as, three years later, was Jesus Losa, the team doctor named in the Cofidis affair. Aitor González twice tested positive in 2005 for a methyltestosterone metabolite. González claimed the positive test was the result of a contaminated dietary supplement purchased at a fitness center. He was suspended for two years and has now retired from the sport. 2005 was also the year in which Landaluze famously beat the UCI in a case where he argued that a sample that had returned a positive had been so badly handled by the lab there was no way of telling if the positive result was accurate.

Astarloza being found to have used EPO would, surely, end the team's credibility with too many sponsors. The foundation's only hope, the nay-sayers would claim, is that he somehow gets out from under this mess.

Additionally, after the Pyreneean stages of this year's Tour, Astarloza was frustrated and remarked that "honestly, I don't know what more we can do to win a stage." You might read that as saying that even after doping the results weren't coming.

But Astarloza's frustration can just as readily be read as a positive statement admitting, albeit resignedly, that, as Madariaga put it, Euskaltel-Euskad is fishing for talent in a "small creek" while other teams have the great big sea to draw upon.

Something about this particular case makes very little sense.

Astarloza is one of the thinkers of the peloton. He has already started to make his name as a journalist. He speaks eloquently of Basque aspirations and his statement on August 4 was in both Basque and Spanish. The stage win in this year's Tour de France was enormously rewarding to him as an athlete, but as a professional off the bike with his future ahead of him Astarloza has more to lose by doping than most cyclists. He rides for a team which he says he is "really proud to be part of. We have the name of our country on our jersey...people think about what we represent. Being Basque means you have a feeling. You must have it inside. It's a feeling of someone who loves the country, the language and the culture. It's a matter of pride. People recognize this."

It simply doesn't make sense that an athlete of Astarloza's intellect and experience would opt to use a simple form of EPO in 2009. The tests are established. It's not as if he is accused of using a drug that there was previously no known test for, or that it is an old, stored sample being tested. To use EPO in June 2009 in professional cycling you would have to have a sense of impunity beyond the likes of even Bernard Madoff or a reckless, self-destructive streak Astarloza has shown no sign of possessing. The fact that Haimar Zubeldia and Amets Txurruka joined Astarloza at his press conference indicates that two of those who know him best also appreciate that something about this case makes no sense.

Those internal test results of Euskaltel-Euskadi might just show that, in fact, the case doesn't make sense because it is all one gross error.

Update: After winning stage one of the Vuelta a Burgos, Koldo Fernandez was quoted on the team web site saying "a large part of this win is dedicated to Mikel Astarloza." The foundation has also updated the banner on its web page to prominently display Astarloza winning stage 16 of this year's Tour de France. It's fair to say the team is investing a huge amount of moral authority and taking enormous financial risks. Can anyone name a situation in which so much support has been thrown behind a rider by a team?

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