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Last weekend's publication in El Pais of what are reported to be extensive extracts from the judicial summary of the Operacion Puerto doping investigation appears to have been the main driver behind Tour de France organisers ASO requesting that the Astana (formerly Liberty Seguros) team stay away from this year's race, which starts on Saturday in Strasbourg.
The Active Bay company that owns the Astana outfit received a fax from ASO in Paris on Monday afternoon. In it, ASO stated that it would prefer the Astana team which is led by likely Tour contender Alexandre Vinokourov not to travel to Strasbourg this weekend. It also suggested that if the team does turn up at the Tour, attempts will be made to prevent them from starting.
As Astana have been accepted into the ProTour in recent days, ASO is obliged to let the team start the Tour as all ProTour teams are guaranteed entry into the sport's leading events. ASO had been hoping that the International Cycling Union would take action against Astana, but has taken steps of its own after UCI president Pat McQuaid said his organisation could not "take decisions based on revelations in the press, but only official information".
As well as making their request to Active Bay, ASO have also contacted the Court of Arbitration for Sport with the objective of getting official support for its stance. Active Bay have responded by lodging a counter-appeal with CAS, insisting they be allowed to start and demanding that the issue be resolved as soon as possible.
Sunday's El Pais suggested that the Spanish Guardia Civil inquiry team have been investigating systematic doping within what was the Liberty Seguros team. Former team leader Roberto Heras, dropped by Liberty last year after testing positive after winning the Vuelta, was one of just four Liberty riders named by El Pais as being under investigation, while Active Bay team owner Manolo Saiz is alleged to have been one of the heads of a suspected blood doping ring working with riders in a number of teams.
These stories gave the Tour the opportunity to invoke a UCI regulation that allows the exclusion from races of riders or teams believed to have damaged the image of the sport. ASO's decision has received the total backing of the French government, with minister of sport Jean-Franois Lamour stating: "The UCI, which bears the responsibility for banning riders from big races, has to assume that responsibility and allow ASO to select the riders and teams it chooses."
Questioned about the issue in Paris, UCI president McQuaid said he felt "frustrated because the Spanish authorities are not making available the names that appear in the Operacion Puerto judicial summary".
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