Cycling: Reigning champion and team banned from 2008 Tour de France

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The Independent Online

Tour de France organisers announced yesterday that 2007 winner Alberto Contador and his Astana squad cannot take part in the 2008 event.

The reasoning behind the bombshell decision is, organisers said, "the damage caused by the team to the Tour and cycling in general in 2006 and 2007."

Astana's previous team leader, Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov, tested positive for blood doping during the 2007 Tour and the team – which had two more positive dope tests in the same year – opted to quit en masse.

The team came under new management in January 2008, with Belgian Johan Bruyneel, who directed American Lance Armstrong to seven straight Tour wins and Spaniard Contador to his 2007 victory, taking over.

However, despite introducing a €300,000 anti-doping program, as well as convincing Contador to sign for Astana, Tour organisers ASO have argued that they cannot "afford to make the same mistake."

"They [Astana] said they'd already cleaned up their act after 2006, when half the team had been involved in the [anti-doping investigation] Operacion Puerto," ASO boss Christian Prudhomme told the French newspaper L'Equipe yesterday.

"But then we made the mistake of inviting them on the Tour in 2007. If their anti-doping system works, we'll take them back later, but not this year."

ASO's decision makes the sharpest of breaks with the Tour's unwritten tradition that the previous year's winner and his team were automatically admitted to the next edition of the race.

But the warning signs were there a fortnight ago, when the Tour of Italy, cycling's second biggest stage race event, also said they would bar Astana in 2008.

It is also the first time in the Tour's modern history that a past winner has not been allowed to start despite not failing a drugs test.

"It's very disappointing, particularly as we weren't the only team to tarnish the Tour's reputation last year, but we've been singled out," Briton Sean Yates – who led the Tour for a day in 1994 and who is now working for Astana as a sports director – told The Independent. "To some, that decision might seem to be unfair.

"But as the French say, c'est la vie, and we'll get on with riding in the races that we can take part in."

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly