Bjarne Riis defends under-fire Schleck

Refutes links to Puerto

CSC team manager Bjarne Riis has spoken out against recent doping suspicions over one of his top riders, Luxembourger Frank Schleck, calling for the case to be judged on "the facts". And the Dane, who confessed last year to using banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) during his career, refuted rumours that he is linked to the Operation Puerto affair.

Schleck wore the Tour de France yellow jersey for two days in July but has become the latest big name cyclist to be linked to the Puerto affair which erupted in Spain in May 2006.

At its epicentre was Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, the alleged mastermind of a vast blood doping network. When police raided his laboratory in May 2006, banned substances, blood bags and a list of around 200 athletes names, including 50 or so cyclists, were reportedly found.

Schleck has been called to a hearing by the Duchy's anti-doping authorities over a newspaper report which claimed he paid 7000 euros into a Swiss bank account held by Fuentes in March 2006. However Riis said CSC would wait for the conclusions of the hearing, for which no date has yet been established, before they make any judgement on Schleck.

"Frank has said he has not doped or been involved in any illegal practices. He hasn't compromised any of the team's or UCI's (International Cycling Union) rules," Riis said Sunday as he announced a new co-sponsor, IT Factory, for his team's main sponsor Saxo Bank.

UCI chiefs indicated Saturday, a day prior to the men's road race here, that Schleck could not be prevented from racing on suspicions alone.

"... at this moment in time we have nothing, no evidence against Frank Schleck," said UCI chief Pat McQuaid.

While the names of around 200 'clients' of Fuentes were reportedly uncovered by police, only a few cyclists - including Italian star Ivan Basso, the former leader of Schleck's CSC team - were punished. The UCI has tried, but struggled against Spanish government resistance, to have the investigation fully opened.

Basso is the biggest name yet to be sanctioned because of his links to the Puerto affair. He was snared by a codename on a blood bags, labelled with the name of his dog 'Birillo'. Allegations have been made that another blood bag, labelled 'friend of Birillo', relates to Frank Schleck.

Confronted with the allegations that he paid money to Fuentes, Schleck said late on Friday: "I've done nothing illegal. I have not doped."

On Sunday, as Schleck competed in the men's road race, Riis added: "We will wait for Frank to speak to the Luxembourg authorities before making any decisions. We base our decisions on facts."

Allegations of links to Fuentes effectively prompted the retirement of 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich of Germany, Riis's teammate at the now defunct Telekom outfit during the 1990s.

Riis admitted he used EPO to win the 1996 Tour, thus ending the five-year reign of Spaniard Miguel Indurain.

© AFP 2008...

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