The Astana team of reigning Tour de France champion Alberto Contador have been barred from competing in this year's race as a result of doping scandals over the past two years, organisers confirmed on Wednesday.
ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) said that given "the damage caused by this team to the Tour de France and cycling in general, as much in 2006 as 2007" they had decided to prevent Astana from competing in any of their races.
"The Astana team in effect last year betrayed the confidence of organisers who even then invited them on trust of an overhaul presented by their leaders," ASO said in a statement.
As well as Spaniard Contador the decision also effects American Levi Leipheimer, who finished third last year, and Germany's Andreas Kloden, widely considered as one of the race favourites.
ASO's decision is likely to come up against International Cycling Union (UCI) president Pat McQuaid who slammed the decision of the Tour of Italy organisers similarly not to invite Astana to compete in this year's race.
The Luxembourg-registered Kazakh team were forced to withdraw from the 2007 Tour de France and were snubbed by the Spanish Vuelta in September after a string of doping scandals.The team's former leader Alexandre Vinokourov was fired after testing positive for a blood transfusion during the Tour, while riders Andrej Kashechkin and Matthias Kessler also failed doping tests.
Since their drug-tainted 2007 season, Astana have undergone a makeover, and promised to clean up their act. A new team of riders, including Contador and Leipheimer, have come on board along with their manager, Johan Bruyneel, from the now defunct Discovery Channel team.
Bruyneel helped Lance Armstrong to seven consecutive Tour wins, and led Contador to his first yellow jersey last year. ASO added: "As the team has once again changed, ASO will remain vigilent to Astana's efforts to put in place for a 2008 season without scandals and suspicion and could so consider an eventual bid for future events."
Cycling's top tier of Pro Tour teams were supposed to be automatically invited to the major races of the season, however major race organisers, including RCS (Tour of Italy) and ASO (Tour de France) are now no longer part of the Pro Tour calendar following a protracted dispute with the International Cycling Union (UCI).
"I'm in shock and very disappointed," Leipheimer said. "Along with my friends, family and supporters, I can't understand why we're not allowed to take part in the Tour and defend Alberto's title with two other riders capable of winning, myself included. We're all left wondering; I chose this team because it was a very new team, which I´ve already experienced. I stand by my decision to be part of the new Astana team for 2008. In a supportive manner, the entire team will fight back. The many encouragements I already received today mean a lot to me."
© AFP 2008