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There is no good time for one of your team's leaders and undoubted stars to test positive, but when news of Roberto Heras's positive A test for EPO began to leak out to the Spanish media on Monday night one of the first questions many were asking was what would this mean in terms of Liberty Seguros' continued sponsorship of the team.
In the first half of this last season, two of the team's riders were found to be above the 50 per cent haematocrit level. Isidro Nozal was prevented from starting the Dauphin Libr and subsequently missed the Tour de France, while Nuno Ribeiro was released by the team having been prevented from starting the Giro and having joined only at the start of the season. The team subsequently sacked team doctor Alberto Garai. But the news about Heras embroils the team and their sponsor in a crisis of a completely different and much greater order.
Manuel Pi¤era, president of the Active Bay company that owns the Liberty team, admitted when contacted by respected Spanish daily El Pais that he was concerned about the future of the team, which is backed by a Boston-based insurance company. "I know that we are playing with our continued sponsorship," admitted Pi¤era. "My first thought after hearing the news was one of concern for cycling in general."
Pi¤era, who came into cycling to help his friend Manolo Saiz find a new sponsor after Saiz parted ways with ONCE at the end of 2003, has battled hard against doping and acknowledged he had been hit hard by the news about Heras. "This issue will have no solution until riders, teams' medical staff, team managers and other staff are heavily sanctioned. We have started an investigation to find out all we can about the case but it will be very hard for us to take it anywhere," he said.
Pi¤era did say he was hanging on to the hope that a mistake might have been made in the testing process. "Until the results of the counter-analysis are confirmed I will hang on to the hope that the laboratory has made some mistake. It seems ridiculous to me that Heras has tested positive for EPO on the penultimate stage of a Vuelta that he had already won. He didn't need to be doped to win. That's why I can't understand that he could have doped. It's a ridiculous situation that I don't understand."
Pi¤era's hopes of his team leader's innocence and the rider's protestations of the same will be confirmed or otherwise when the results of the counter-analysis are revealed on November 21. The omens are not good for them, however.
The initial test was carried out by the UCI-accredited lab in Madrid, which delayed for a significant amount of time before informing the team, who then informed the rider. According to El Pais, the six-week delay between the test being undertaken on September 17 and the results being given to the team on October 27 were the result of caution on the part of the lab following a recent number of false positives using the EPO test. During this period, the Madrid lab sent the results to labs in Paris and Lausanne, both of which are reported to have confirmed them.
The confirmation of the Chatenay Malabry lab in Paris is particularly notable as it is this lab that has confirmed that a number of recent EPO 'positives', including those of Fabrizio Guidi and world track champion Juan Llaneras, were in fact false.
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