Wednesday February 27th, 2008

From Rock Racing, the only U.S. Pro Continental team that travels with its own stable of podium girls, comes this breaking news: team owner Michael Ball has had an epiphany! On Tuesday, Rock announced plans to adopt "an aggressive internal team anti-doping program," such as those employed by Slipstream, High Road, CSC, Astana and others.

This initiative, declaims the press release, underscores Ball's "willingness to take every measure to ensure that its members race clean and fair." It also underscores his unwllingness to keep getting his head handed to him, PR-wise, on the issue of doping.

Before turning our gaze to Rock Racing's recent, turbulent past, let's get a post-mortem on the Tour of California, which ended Sunday in Pasadena.

Never did riders suffer so acutely as in Stage 4, the 135-mile slog down the coast to San Luis Obispo. Lashed by rain, taunted by headwinds, hypothermic riders took seven-plus hours to finish. Chapeau (hats off) to Toyota-United's Dominique Rollin for a truly epic stage win.

Congrats, also, to Astana's Levi Leipheimer, for successfully defending his Tour of California title, after seizing the lead with a dominating time trial last Friday in Solvang. Leipheimer won despite the disappointment of his team's stunning exclusion from this year's Tour de France, whose grandees remain unmoved by the fact that Astana, under new management, has purged itself of the drug cheats who embarrassed the Tour for two years running. In hopes that those eminences might change their minds, Leipheimer & friends set up LetLeviRide.com. Of course, if he doesn't get to the Champs-Elysees this July, Levi can always treasure the memory of those six soggy laps around Pasadena. That stage was snatched, incidentally, by Team High Road's George Hincapie, the redoubtable war horse who has long enlisted foul weather as his ally.

Rain notwithstanding, there was no shortage of delighted sponsors at this race. CSC riders Fabian Cancellera and Juan Jose Haedo won, in turn, the Prologue and Stage 1. European megastar Tom Boonen of Quickstep showcased his skills with a sprint win in Stage 2. Nailing an audition for a spot in the Tour de France, Pro Continental squad Slipstream put a pair of riders on the peloton -- David Millar as runner up; Christian Vande Velde third -- and clinched the team classification.

Having a less auspicious week was Ball, the combative majordomo of Rock Racing, "an eclectic team of powerful, world-class athletes" -- I'm quoting from that same press release -- "who are redefining professional cycling through incredible teamwork and a flamboyant flair."

Not just flair, mind you -- flamboyant flair, which is like flair on EPO flair squared. All the cash Ball dropped on gas (its team cars are Escalades) and modeling fees (its quartet of Rock & Republic-jeans-clad lovelies were a welcome sight at starts and finishes) did not, alas, translate into results. Rock's highest-finishing rider, Victor Hugo Pena, placed 12th. After him, it was a long drop to Doug Ollerenshaw at 37th, and 40-year-old Mario Cipollini, at 58th.

Of course, it didn't help that the team's three biggest studs were yanked out of the race the day before it started. After a Spanish court reopened an old doping investigation named Operacion Puerto, TOC officials insisted that Rock scratch three riders -- Tyler Hamilton, Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla (all have denied wrongdoing) -- with links to Puerto, even though all three are currently licensed to ride by the UCI, cycling's governing body.

Another rider not taking the start for Rock was Kayle Leogrande, who told SI in a brief phone conversation two days before the prologue that he expected to race. He didn't. Last Sunday -- the same day Leipheimer clinched the title -- the cycling world learned one possible reason for Leogrande's absence.

Citing testimony from a sworn affidavit, Velonews.com reported that former Rock Racing soigneur Suzanne Sonye told the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that Leogrande had confessed to her last July that he used performance-enhancing drugs at Wisconsin's International Cycling Classic, also known as Superweek.

SI.com obtained the same affidavit, part of USADA's ongoing investigation of Leogrande, the 2006 elite national criterium champion. Leogrande, 30, was especially dominant in Wisconsin, winning three stages and placing second in three others. Sonye, an ex-pro roadie who competed for the Saturn team, gave him numerous massages that week (that's part of her job). Her affidavit provides possible clues explaining Leogrande's dominance at Superweek. She recounts how he:

"Walked into my room at the EconoLodge, closed the door, and asked me if I knew where to obtain testosterone patches. He also admitted to me that he used testosterone gel but said that he thought the testosterone patches would work better."

Later in the week, after being drug-tested by USADA, according to the affidavit, Leogrande told Sonye "he was really nervous and that he had not slept well the night before because of the [USADA-administered drug] test he had taken after his second place finish in Sheboygan.

"I asked him why he was nervous about the test and why he hadn't slept well. I then asked him if he had 'taken anything. He said he had taken 'lots of things.' He then admitted to me that he had recently taken Vicodin, Ventolin, and EPO. Mr. Leogrande also placed his hand as if he had a syringe in it and pretended as if he was sticking a needle into his arm."

"During this conversation, I said to Mr. Leogrande 'You know the test is going to come back positive.' In response, he then explained that he had put soap on his wrist prior to entering the Doping Control Station and that, while giving his sample, he put some of that soap into the stream of his urine. He further said that he thought the soap 'would f----- the test.'"

Asked to respond to these allegations, Leogrande told SI.com, "I can't really talk to you at all unless it was OK'd through my PR team."

A spokesperson for Rock Racing declined to comment, saying only that "this is a John Doe case, so everything out there is speculation at this point." (On Jan. 23, according to the AP, an anonymous rider -- "John Doe" is widely believed to be Leogrande -- sued USADA to prevent it from testing his B sample after his A sample had come back negative.)

After Velonews broke the story of Sonye's affidavit, Ball released a statement that said, in part:

"Rock Racing supports all of our riders. We live by the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. Kayle Leogrande has denied the allegations regarding an alleged admission by him of an anti-doping event. We are asking that everyone respect the proper process. If there is a finding of a doping violation, we will address it internally and determine the appropriate course of action that should be taken."

Following Leogrande's confession to her, Sonye contacted Frankie Andreu, then the team's director. Andreu was overseas, covering the Tour de France for Versus.

"I got the phone call from Suzanne and immediately told her don't worry about, she did the right thing," he recalls. "I told her I'd call management and tell them about this, and that it would be taken care of."

While Andreu recommended that Leogrande be terminated, Ball retained him. Instead, it was Andreu who parted ways with Rock Racing. He resigned in early January, citing philosophical differences.

Sonye quit shortly after Andreu, mainly, she says, because Leogrande remained on the team. She recalls a phone conversation with Leogrande shortly after he discovered that she'd shared his confession with Andreu.

"He sounded remorseful," she recalls. "I thought he was gonna man up and say, 'You know what, I screwed up. I shouldn't be involved with the team, because if all this comes out, it's not going to be good for the team.' He didn't."

"I can totally forgive people that screw up and do drugs. No problem with that. Just admit it. Just say, 'You know what? I messed up.'"

My question is: How can Rock carry its "flamboyant flair" over to its new internal doping program?

Forgive me for not being completely sold on Ball's commitment to clean riding. But give him this: the man knows which way the wind is blowing.

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