Astana hoping for Giro change of heart

Boys in blue trumpeting clean image

The Astana cycling team of Tour de France champion Alberto Contador is hoping organisers of the Giro d'Italia have a change of heart after not inviting the Kazakh-backed outfit to this year's race.

RCS Sport, the company which runs the three-week Tour of Italy - considered the biggest stage race after the Tour de France - announced a surprise roster of 21 teams for the May 10-June 1 race last week.

Astana, as well as respected French outfit Credit Agricole, were left off the list as a number of smaller, and less well known teams benefited.

Race director Angelo Zomegnan hinted last week that the controversy which surrounded Astana throughout last year was a factor in his decision.

"Astana weren't exactly flawless last year. Okay, they have changed philosophy, and their management but we have to wait and see," he said. "You don't just wake up in the morning a changed person."

Astana were thrown off the 2007 Tour de France after its leader, Alexandre Vinokourov, tested positive for blood doping. He protested his innocence, and his since retired. His compatriot, Andrey Kashechkin, also tested positive for blood doping after the race, bringing to four the number of riders from that team who tested positive for banned substances or methods in 2007.

Zomegnan now appears to have toned down last week's views, saying: "At this moment, the quality of the proposed participating riders for the Giro is not in proportion to the potential of the team.

"I do not take into consideration what happened with the old Astana in the past. Time probably cures all things."

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 Tour de France podium finisher Levi 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.

But as the various bodies and interests in cycling fight to rid the sport of doping cheats, Contador - who has been linked to the Operation Puerto doping scandal which has hovered over the peloton since May 2006 - has also been threatened with not being given an invite to the Tour de France.

Regarding their potential absence from the Giro, Bruyneel is taking a philosophical approach. "The Giro direction has the freedom of choice. We regret that. Lodging a complaint will not help us," he said in a statement released by Astana Tuesday.

"The coming weeks, we will prove that we still have our place in all big cycling events. Fortunately, my sponsors confirmed today their unconditional support. With their support, we started building a new team in a clean environment. We will continue on that way."

Cycling's top tier of ProTour teams were supposed to be automatically invited to the major races of the season, however major race organisers, including RCS and ASO (Tour de France) are now no longer part of the ProTour calendar following a protracted dispute with the International Cycling Union (UCI).

Bruyneel added, however: "If the Giro directors reconsider their selection, we will be ready for it."

© AFP 2008

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