Week in cycling: Beloki blasts Festina, USA Cycling cuts staff, Lance avoids France

Armstrong and Beloki at the conclusion of this year's Tour de France  Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport
MADRID, Jan. 7 (AFP) — Spanish cyclist Joseba Beloki has lifted the lid on the financial wranglings of his former team Festina after leaving for ONCE due to a "lack of transparency" at his former outfit.

Beloki's revelations could lead to a legal investigation into Festina's financial affairs just three years after they were embroiled in the drug-tainted Tour de France which resulted in the team being expelled from the race for systematic drug taking.

The 27-year-old, who was not a member of the disgraced 1998 team but finished third in last year's Tour de France, signed a contract with the ONCE team for three seasons.

According to Spanish press reports Beloki, who paid around 70 million pesetas ($400,000) to buy out his contract with Festina, has told the International Cycling Union (UCI) that a part of his salary was paid in cash, and was paid in Pyrrenean tax-haven Andorra, where Festina is registered as a company.

Beloki, who joins compatriots Abraham Olano and Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano at ONCE, earlier told Marca newspaper that he joined the Spanish team strictly for sporting reasons, adding that he would have been better paid at Festina.

ONCE did not release details of his salary, but press reports said it was around 300 million pesetas ($1.71 million) over three years.

However, revealing Festina's payment and contractual habits, he later told Madrid-based newspaper AS that Festina riders are not actually contracted to the watch-making company, but with Stichting Omnipsort, a "phantom company," according to AS.

Lance to stay out of France
PARIS (AP) — French Sports Minister Marie-George Buffet said Wednesday she was "sorry" that American cyclist Lance Armstrong has decided to cut all French races apart from the Tour de France out of his 2001 schedule.

But Buffet, speaking at a press gathering in Paris, stressed that "each person must answer for his actions'' within the context of the crackdown on drugs in sports.

Armstrong's 2001 schedule, published earlier this week on his official Web site, listed no races in France apart from the Tour de France, in contrast to last season.

"I am sorry because he is a great champion, because the French admire him a lot,'' Buffet said of Armstrong's decision.

Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team is the subject of a French judicial investigation into whether the squad used banned substances during last year's Tour de France.

"There is the fight against doping,'' Buffet added. "But each person must answer for his actions.

"But that should not stop him from taking part,'' Buffet said.

Last week, a judicial source said that urine samples taken from the team during the 2000 Tour had been undergoing analysis to determine whether the riders took performance-enhancing drugs.

In December, Buffet said French judicial authorities wanted the urine samples for their investigation, which was opened in November based on an anonymous tip.

Armstrong, a Texan, came back from testicular cancer to win the 1999 and 2000 Tours. He has repeatedly denied taking illegal substances, and U.S. Postal Service officials have said the team respects anti-doping rules.

Armstrong's 2000 schedule included four French cycling competitions in addition to the Tour de France.

Buffet also spoke out Wednesday against reported moves by two of the Tour de France's main sponsors to review their backing of the race whose image was tarnished by a doping scandal in 1998.

"You cannot have benefited for years from the positive image of the Tour de France, and then leave when things are difficult,'' Buffet said.

French sports newspaper L'Equipe cited reports Wednesday that French bank Credit Lyonnais and American drinks manufacturer Coca Cola were considering withdrawing their full sponsorship of the Tour de France.

"Sponsorship ... must help the renewal of the Tour de France, in other words, the fight against doping,'' said Buffet, who appealed to sponsors not to withdraw their support.

A French court last month convicted eight people in connection with the 1998 Tour de France doping scandal, imposing suspended sentences and fines of up to 50,000 francs ($7,000).

Most of those sentenced were former members of the Festina cycling team, which was expelled from the 1998 Tour after a stash of products, notably the performance-enhancer EPO, was found in a team car.

The fall trial in Lille in northern France led to a series of frank testimonies about the use of banned substances in the world of cycling.

USA cycling cuts staff
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — USA Cycling, which produced three medal winners at the Sydney Olympics, has cut nine staff positions, including women's road coach Henny Top.

The cuts, which also included men's endurance track coach Craig Griffin and resident athlete coach Matt Cramer, followed the loss of two of the federation's biggest sponsors.

The federation also laid off its technical director, the membership director, the membership representative and three mechanics, bringing its staff total to 33.

USA Cycling is the national governing body for mountain biking, road and track racing. Cyclists Lance Armstrong, Mari Holden and Marty Nothstein won medals at the games in Sydney, Australia.

The staff cuts come after the expiration of $1.2 million in contracts with Electronic Data Systems and Visa. USA Cycling still has $1.2 million in funds this year, down about $400,000 from its usual budget.

Steve Johnson, USA Cycling's chief operating officer, said the federation would likely fund fewer international trips, but a developmental program designed to train emerging riders would not be affected.

Blijlevens suspended for assault on Julich
THE HAGUE, Jan 6 (AFP) - Cycling's governing body the International Cycling Union (UCI) suspended Dutch sprinting ace Jeroen Blijlevens for a month for assaulting American rider Bobby Julich prior to the finish of the 2000 Tour De France, according to Dutch press reports here on Saturday.

The 29-year-old Blijlevens, who has recorded 73 career victories including four stages of the Tour de France and four of the Tour of Spain, struck Julich as they were approaching the finish line of the final stage of the Tour on the Champs Elysees in Paris.

Blijlevens, formerly with Polti but who recently signed a contract with Belgian team Lotto, received an automatic punishment by being excluded from the Tour's final standings.

His suspension will take effect from February 2001, the official opening date for the professional cycling season.

Lotto are expected to appeal the UCI's decision over their controversial rider, who pulled out of the 1998 Tour de France along with his then teammates at TVM after they were subjected to a dawn raid by French policemen and forced to submit hair samples for a drugs test.

Virenque appeals ban
LAUSANNE, Jan. 11 (AFP) — Disgraced French cyclist Richard Virenque has lodged his appeal against a nine-month ban for doping with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (TAS), a court spokesman said on Thursday.

A spokesman for the Lausanne-based TAS, Mathieu Reeb, said the appeal was received by registered post on Wednesday.

Lawyers for Virenque, who has won four stages in the Tour de France and finished second in 1996 and third in 1995 and also wore the yellow jersey for a day in 1992, must submit their written arguments within 10 days.

The 31-year-old five-time Tour de France King of the Mountains was banned after admitting during a trial involving his former Festina team last year that he had used performance-enhancing substances.

The ban, which comes into effect on February 1 and therefore rules him out of this year's Tour de France, was handed down by the Swiss Cycling Federation (FSC) because Virenque is a Swiss resident.

The FSC has 20 days to submit its arguments to the Court, which is expected to deliver its judgment within a maximum of four months.

Virenque has protested that the ban is excessively long and that it could force him to retire from the sport.

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