Phonak might take back Tyler

With a decision in Tyler Hamilton's blood doping case just days away, Phonak team boss Andy Rihs int

With a decision in Tyler Hamilton’s blood doping case just days away, Phonak team boss Andy Rihs int

PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM Phonak team patron Andy Rihs on Sunday refused to rule out Tyler Hamilton being reinstated to the Swiss team if he is cleared of blood doping by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Rihs made the surprising admission to procycling before the final stage of Paris-Nice on Sunday. Of the ongoing review of the Hamilton case by USADA, Rihs said: “We don’t know the verdict yet so we can’t comment. but if Hamilton was proved innocent we would certainly be open to discussion with him.” Rihs’s comments follow the news last week that Hamilton’s case remains under review by USADA arbitrators, despite his appeal hearing having ended on March 2. Hamilton stands accused of using homologous blood transfusions to enhance his performance in the 2004 Vuelta a Espana and Olympic Games time trial won by the American. When the case finally closes the USADA arbitrators will have 10 days to deliver their verdict, according to Hamilton. Rihs said today that an independent medical panel set up by Phonak was still working to ascertain the validity of the blood testing method which snared both Hamilton and his team-mate Santiago Perez last autumn. “To my mind, you can only apply a test when it has been validated, and this method hasn’t been validated. Our commission only received the information it needed in January. We expect them to report back soon” he said. While also basing his defence on the doubts about the test – which the World Anti-Doping Agency maintains is “100 per cent accurate” – Hamilton has continued to train intensively this winter. His goal, he maintains, is to ride and be competitive in the Tour de France later this year. Asked to react to rumours that Hamilton had even been seen sporting new Phonak team kit while training at home in Colorado, Rihs hardly seemed alarmed. “It’s possible,” he smiled. The Swiss tycoon then denied having been in regular contact with Hamilton in recent weeks: “I haven’t spoken to him and I don’t know whether there is a clause in his old contract saying that he can be reintroduced to the team,” Rihs said. According to Rihs, any decision regarding Hamilton’s possible reprieve with Phonak will be taken by new team manager John Lelangue. The recent appointment of Lelangue, a former deputy competition director of the Tour de France, has also sparked controversy. Many viewed the choice of a man with no experience of managing a professional team as a cynical ploy to earn wild card entry to the Tour de France. This speculation proved academic when, shortly after Rihs unveiled Lelangue as the new Phonak manager, the Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS) overruled a UCI commission’s decision to exclude Phonak from the ProTour. The team’s admission to the Tour was then assured. “I have known John Lelangue for a long time,” Rihs told procycling today. “He is a very open, professional guy. His appointment had nothing to do with getting into the Tour de France. We simply needed a change at the top. It was a business decision. If things aren’t working, then someone must bear the responsibility.” Rihs later refuted the suggestion that Lelangue’s predecessors, Alvaro Pino and Urs Freuler, had been dismissed at the request of the UCI ProTour commission. “I can deny that categorically,” he said. “The UCI cannot make that type of demand. The change of regime was entirely independent of anything to do with Hamilton, Perez or the ProTour.” When he was quizzed further on whether Freuler and Pino’s exit was linked to Hamilton and Perez’s positive dope test, Rihs would say only that “it was necessary, just as soccer teams often change their manager.” Rihs’s next move if Hamilton is cleared may ultimately be determined by his desire to find a new sponsor to replace Phonak next year. Lelangue is already working hard to find potential backers, and Rihs was adamant today that “we will continue as a major ProTour team in 2006,with one of the five biggest budgets in the ProTour.” Whether prospective sponsors will be queuing up to associate themselves with Hamilton – even if the American is proved innocent – remains to be seen. One option which remains open to Rihs is to prolong his investment in the team with another of the brands in his business portfolio. “That’s very possible,” he said today. Phonak’s ProTour licence is up for renewal in 2006, but the UCI would allow the team to compete under a different corporate banner next season. Rihs’s BMC bicycle brand – which is already a technical sponsor of the team – is an obvious candidate.