PIC BY TIM DE WAELE
Latest reports suggest that Tour de France organisers Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) are poised to withdraw Spanish team Comunidad Valenciana's invitation to the Grande Boucle on account of the directeur sportif Ignacio Labarta's involvement in the "operaci¢n Puerto" doping investigation.
Spanish sports daily AS claimed on Wednesday that ASO will announce the decision in the next forty-eight hours.
ASO can exclude Comunidad Valenciana at their own discretion due to the Spanish team's status as a Continental Professional team. Comunidad Valenciana are in fact one of two non-ProTour teams in possession of a wild-card invitation to the Tour - an invitation which can be revoked at any time.
Tour chief Jean-Marie Leblanc has said in recent days that his organisation would postpone any decision about CV's Tour participation until it received more information on "operaci¢n Puerto" from the Spanish Guardia Civil. But Leblanc added that ASO would adopt "vigorous measures" to protect the Tour's image from the overspill of the Spanish scandal.
It now seems likely that Vicente Belda's team will have its ticket to the Tour snatched away for the second time in two years: ironically, it was former rider Jesus Manzano's revelations about doping in the team which led to both Comunidad Valenciana losing its wild-card in 2004 and to the Spanish authorities opening "operaci¢n Puerto".
Another team heavily involved in the enquiry - the Manolo Saiz-managed outfit formerly known as Liberty Seguros - begins its new life under the aegis of German tool company Wrth at the Bicicleta Vasca today. The team will line up wearing blue jerseys obviously shorn of all Liberty Seguros branding.
Like Comundid Valenciana, Wrth faces the threat of being barred from the Tour due primarily to Saiz's implication, but unlike Comundid Valenciana can't be unilaterally excluded by ASO. As a member of the ProTour, Wrth is a statutorily invited to the Tour and can only be denied access to the Grande Boucle if it is stripped of its ProTour licence. On the final day of the Giro d'Italia on Sunday, UCI ProTour manager Alain Rumpf outlined the circumstances in which that might happen: "We have two scenarios," said Rumpf. "One, the sponsor is continuing its obligations, and therefore allows the team to continue their activity, and unless the [UCI ProTour] licence commission withdraws their licence, the team will continue their activities. Now, if the team is not capable of fulfilling its obligations, we have another situation, and we have a provision at the UCI that may allow the rider to withdraw his contract and negotiate with another team. In regards to the second scenario, there are some conditions, but that is the basic principle."