Tour organizer won't back down on decision to ban Astana from '08 race

MADRID, Spain -- Tour de France champion Alberto Contador won't be eligible to compete in cycling's showcase event until 2009.

Tour organizer Patrice Clerc said Wednesday he won't rescind the decision to ban Contador's Astana team from this year's race. But he said Astana can return in 2009 if it stays free of doping scandals this year.

"There's no reason not to think about this team competing in 2009," Clerc told The Associated Press. "If all goes well then there is no reason why they cannot participate next year."

Trusting Astana once before -- ahead of the 2007 Tour -- was the main reason behind the decision to rescind the team's invitation.

Astana missed the 2006 Tour after heavy links to the Operation Puerto doping scandal in Spain. The Kazakh team promised to clean house going into 2007, but was then thrown out of the race when Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping.

Some doctors and members from those teams still remain. To avoid another "catastrophic" event, Clerc said he would rather not take any chances.

"It's not an easy decision to take, especially since the team holds Alberto Contador. Believe me, if the team didn't hold Contador, the decision would have been taken much sooner," the Frenchman said.

Contador was linked to Puerto but never tested positive for doping.

"I will take advantage of all possible opportunities to vindicate the name of the team," the Spaniard said from the Tour of Castilla and Leon, where he won Monday's opening time trial.

Spanish Vuelta race director Victor Cordero said Astana could still be invited to compete at the Spanish classic from Aug. 30, but the team would be monitored closely in the lead-up. Any "stupidity" would cost it an invitation to the three-week race.

Astana, which was not invited to the Giro d'Italia, was banned from racing at last year's Vuelta after Andrej Kashechkin tested positive for a banned blood transfusion in an out-of-competition test.

The Tour's popularity would likely take a hit in Spain because of the exclusion of Contador, a cyclist Clerc labeled "the star" of the current generation.

Also, Clerc said he is concerned ongoing problems with the International Cycling Union will leave the Tour without the means to monitor cyclists' blood levels for possible doping.