O’Grady unhappy with exclusion from Vuelta, says Riis over-reacted
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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

O’Grady unhappy with exclusion from Vuelta, says Riis over-reacted

by Conal Andrews at 3:20 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Vuelta a España
 
Australian denies claims he and Schleck were drinking all night

Stuart OLongtime Saxo Bank rider Stuart O’Grady has expressed disappointment with the decision taken by Bjarne Riis to send himself and Andy Schleck home from the Vuleta a España. The 37 year old Australian contradicts suggestions that himself and the Tour de France runner-up were out drinking until 5am on the first rest day of the race, reiterating Schleck’s earlier claim that they were home much earlier than that.

“We stepped out of the team hotel at 10pm and stopped for a couple of beers at a bar in the local piazza (square),” he told The Australian newspaper.

“We had two beers, that's all. Some members of the European press over here have made us sound like we were on the drink all night. That's simply not true.”

Some reports yesterday claimed that the riders were out until close to sunrise, and came back drunk to the hotel. Riis himself wouldn’t get into the specifics, but it was clear that he felt that they had acted unprofessionally. “It doesn’t matter if it was one drink or ten,” Riis told reporters after yesterday’s stage, “or if he was out until five in the morning and that’s between us anyway, rules are made to be kept. I’m not here to give any explanations or further details. What actually happened will stay between us.”

O’Grady was riding the Vuelta for two reasons; the first was to support Frank Schleck’s bid to win the Vuelta a España. The latter started yesterday’s stage 13th overall, 1’47 behind the then-leader Igor Anton (Euskaltel Euskadi), and plans to make a big push in the days ahead.

The second was to prepare for the world road race championships, which will take place in Melbourne and Geelong on October third.

Both of those objectives have been affected by their exclusion from the race, although Riis might argue that the two riders were not taking the Vuelta seriously and would have been of limited assistance to Frank Schleck.

For his part, O’Grady feels that the reaction was over the top. “I don't want to sound like I'm whinging, but the decision to pull us out of the race was harsh. The decision has cost me two weeks of hard racing preparing for the worlds in Geelong.

“It also means I've ridden my last race for Saxo Bank. This is not the way I would have wanted my career racing for Bjarne Riis to end. I've ridden my guts out on the front for the team for the last six seasons.”

In that time he has been one of the cornerstones of the team, winning Paris-Roubaix in 2007, taking first overall in the Herald Sun Tour, second in the Tour of Denmark, third in Paris-Tours and the Dwars door Vlaanderen and fifth in Milan San Remo, Omloop Het Volk, Paris Roubaix and the Tour of California.

Equally importantly, he has acted as road captain in many races and done a lot of work for the team in the Tour de France, where it won the overall title in 2008 with Carlos Sastre, and has twice taken the runner-up slot with Andy Schleck.

However Riis’ relationship with the two riders has cooled of late; the Schleck brothers are leaving for the new, as-yet unnamed Team Luxembourg, and taking several riders with them, including Jens Voigt and Jakob Fuglsang. O’Grady is also leaving, and said that he plans to announce his future squad in one week’s time.

Whatever time the two riders were indeed out until, and however many beverages they did have, it has been clear for some time that Riis has had less and less influence over the big names in his team. Fabian Cancellara is also openly talking about leaving, even though he has a year left on his current contract.

The expulsion of O’Grady and Schleck from the race was interpreted in varying ways yesterday: some saw it as a reasonable reaction to breaking of the team rules, although the extent of that would be best determined if the riders’ returning time and state of inebriation was clear. Another interpretation was that it was partly an example set to bring the other riders back into line, and to ensure that a team which is going through a lot of changes continues to pull together until the end of the season.

A third opinion was that Riis is frustrated with Schleck and O’Grady for leaving the team, and is reacting more strongly to their indiscretion than he would have done had they been still under contract next season.

Whichever one it is, O’Grady is rueing what happened that night, while also feeling that the punishment was too harsh.

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