I walked in to the press room this morning at Le Tour de France 2006 and one of the guys from French radio told me that Ullrich and Sevilla were gone – sent home by T-Mobile due to their involvement in Operaçion Puerto, the Spanish drugs bust.
I had plans for today, namely to ride the prologue course and do a piece on it then meet-up with the Saunier Duval PR girl and photograph David Millar’s, Scott time trial bike.
I put these plans on ‘hold’ because I figured we’d best keep in touch with the events unfolding around ‘Operaçion Puerto’, besides, it doesn’t look like they are going to close the roads until tomorrow and trying to ride the prologue course would be a waste of time with traffic lights every 50 metres.
The first job was to write-up the news about Ullrich. This proved more difficult than expected because I just couldn’t get my laptop to work properly with the wi-fi signal in the building. I wasn’t the only one and one Dutch journalist was losing the plot a tad, yelling at the technicians: “I’ve worked all over the world and…, etc. etc.”
I finally got my piece on Jan’s departure finished when it was announced that there was to be a press conference regarding the ‘Operation Puerto’ situation. One of the things you learn about journalism is that patience is a big requirement of the job – you have to wait for accreditation, wait to get your laptop configured, wait for interviewees and wait for press conferences.
This one started half an hour late. Keen-types like me scribble story lines in their note pad, whilst the old-hands sprawl and chat.
The conference was held in a large auditorium and there were a couple of hundred of the media there; a panel of five faced the mob — Yves Bonnamour, Roger Legeay and Patrick Lefevre all from AIGCP — the riders organisation, plus: Christian Prudhomme of ASO — the Tour organisers.
Prudhomme said he was pleased that T-Mobile had sent Ullrich and Sevilla home but the race organisation had to wait on the panish documents being translated before acting.
A meeting had been held with all 21 team managers and it had been agreed that all riders named in the Spanish police investigations shouldleave he race — Basso and Mancebo plus five Astana/Wurth riders — Beloki, Paulinho, Nozal, Contador and Davis.
It seemed confusing naming the Wurth guys because the Tour organisers have already condemned them, indeed Prudhomme stated at the conference that theirs was a special case because it was an example of systematic drug-taking involving a whole team. But there may be another reason for the Tour organisers being so specific about the individual Wurth riders — more of that later.
Lefevre spoke next, none of his usual smiles and banter: “I’m not proud to be sitting here” he began by saying and proceeded to endorse Prudhomme’s remarks, adding that the dismissed riders would notbe replaced, so T-Mobile are down to seven without a blow struck.
As the five left the stage, chaos ensued with the camera men acting in best paparazzi traditions, pushing, barging and in some cases crawling around the floor — wild.
I wrote that-up and emailed it just in time for the CSC press conference, where an obviously broken-hearted Bjarne Riis faced the inquisition.
The question of the day came from the eejit who asked if Bjarne was as upset about Basso’s exit as he was on the occasion he chucked his bike over a hedge in a 1997 Tour time trial. The big Dane resisted the obvious temptation to give the boy a good shake and replied: “I don’t think you can compare the two things”. Good answer Bjarne.
He didn’t get too hard a time but some of the questions were loaded:
“Given the very close relationship you have with Basso how could you not be aware of what he was up to?”
Another body punch was:
“It must be very dispiriting for you to see one of your former star riders, Tyler Hamilton involved in Operaçion Puerto.”
Riis, is a strong guy; he’ll bounce-back.
The AG2R press conference was a low-key affair with all the talking done in French, English and Spanish. Questions were simply ignored — good boys.
More word processing, then I bolted up through the rush-hour traffic to Ostwald, a nice wee place 10 k. to the south of Strasbourg where I was to meet-up with the Saunier-Duval PR girl and get photos of David Millar’s Scott time trial bike. It was on the stand when I got there and I thought: ‘great’ – only problem was that the mechanics wouldn’t let me snap it.
The reason I was given was that they didn’t have Scott forks on it and didn’t want the sponsor finding out – it did indeed have Oval “biplane” front forks fitted along with a very tasty ‘biplane’ tri-bar set-up with the brake lever mechanisms moulded into the bar ends.
I took some snaps of his ‘B’ bike complete with the same avante-garde graphics as the top tool. I’ll be all over it like a rash tomorrow, I can tell you.
In the same hotel were the black-balled, Astana/Wurth and I took the opportunity to chat to Stevo — Aussie, Neil Stephens who is on the management team and speaks fluent Spanish, indeed he lives in the Basque country.
At that time (around 1900 CET) he was still unsure if the team was riding or not. The Tour organisers were now saying that they didn’t have to go against the Court ruling which said the team could ride because they had five riders named in the scandal and excluded voluntarily at the meeting of team managers, leaving only four ‘clean’ names – Tour rules say a minimum five must start.
However, he also said that it was coming to light that the Operacion Puerto ‘evidence’ against some of the Wurth guys was a bit shaky and team sprinter, Aussie Allan Davis is looking for someone to sue. I wished him well and headed back to Strasbourg happy that the worst I had to worry about was my deadline.
My 8 euro ‘starlet’ eaten outside the neighbourhood pizza joint, just along from my Ibis hotel wasn’t quite as good as you get on Kirkcaldy High Street, but it wasn’t bad. Talk to you the morn.