Speaking at a press conference on the eve of this year’s Tour of California Prologue, defending Tour of California champion and 2007 Tour de France podium finisher Levi Leipheimer unveiled LetLeviRide.com, a grassroots campaign to appeal the Amaury Sport Organization’s (ASO) recent decision to ban Leipheimer’s team, Astana, from participating in this summer’s Tour de France. Visitors to LetLeviRide.com have an opportunity to pledge their support for Levi and add their name to a petition directed at the ASO.
“With LetLeviRide.com I’m not disputing the ASO’s right to decide which teams it invites to the Tour and which teams it doesn’t,” notes Leipheimer. “I’m drawing attention to the fact that this decision by the ASO is completely arbitrary and unjust. I had nothing to do with Astana prior to joining the team this year. There are many other teams with tainted pasts that haven’t changed management or structure like the new Astana has, yet Astana is singled out and excluded. Where’s the consistency? By taking action now it looks political. It looks like the ASO has a grudge against a team that can win its races. My hope is that this campaign will encourage the ASO to reconsider its decision.”
On February 13th, the ASO barred Team Astana from competing in any race or event organized by the ASO in 2008. The ASO owns premiere cycling events like Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours, and the famed Tour de France. To justify its decision, the ASO cited the doping scandals of last year’s Tour de France.
For anyone who has followed cycling’s ongoing battle against doping, the ASO’s rationale is suspect. Astana’s entire organizational structure has been rebuilt under the direction of the team’s new General Manager, Johan Bruyneel, who has thoroughly cleaned house. What’s more, Astana has adopted the rigorous doping controls developed by the highly respected, anti-doping expert Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard, and Astana now spends more money on anti-doping controls than any other team in the pro peloton. There’s no comparison between the Astana team of 2007 and the new Astana.
“That the happenings of last year…prompted the Tour organizers to leave Astana out of the season’s most important race sounds understandable,” notes Bruyneel. “However, Astana Cycling Team 2008 has nothing to do with the team of last year. We have done everything to change the dynamics of the team. New management, new riders, new philosophy. Only the name of the sponsor remained.”
The ASO has nonetheless largely ignored the new Astana’s restructuring efforts, and as a consequence of barring the entire team from competing in ASO events, has stripped athletes like Levi Leipheimer of the opportunity to realize their life’s ambition of competing in the Tour.