Australian Neil Stephens has been linked with a management position at Team Sky as the British-backed squad seeks to strengthen following a disappointing debut Tour de France.
The 46-year-old has been working as a directeur sportif with the Spanish Caisse d’Epargne team this season and had been lined up to join Astana to work with Alberto Contador.
But with Contador confirming today that he will leave the Kazakh-sponsored team at the end of the year, Stephens’ future is up in the air.
Stephens has reportedly been in discussions with Team Sky and described a move to the British team as ‘a dream’.
As a rider, Stephens won a stage of the 1997 Tour de France with the Festina team.
In 1998, he was part of the Festina team that was kicked out of the Tour before the seventh stage of the Tour after performance-enhancing drugs were found in a team car by police. Shortly before the Tour, a team car containing a large quantity of drugs, including EPO, was seized on the French-Belgian border.
Eight of the nine-man Festina team – including Richard Virenque, Laurent Brochard and Alex Zülle – admitted using drugs or were banned. Stephens said he thought the injections he had been given contained legal vitamins. He retired from racing at the end of that season. Stephens was never sanctioned for any doping offence.
In 2006, Stephens was a directeur sportif for the Liberty Seguros team, run by Manolo Saiz. In May, Saiz was arrested as part of the Operacion Puerto investigation into a Madrid-based blood doping ring. Liberty Seguros pulled the plug on its sponsorship, leaving co-sponsor Würth to carry on. Then a Kazakh-consortium of companies, Astana, stepped in to rescue the team and keep it on course for the Tour de France. However, on the eve of the race all the teams agreed that any riders implicated in Operacion Puerto be withdrawn from the race. Once that process was completed, Astana-Würth was left with too few riders to start the Tour, according to the race rules.
Team Sky’s team principal Dave Brailsford launched the team with a strong anti-doping stance, which was seen as important considering the pro team’s close association with British Cycling. Brailsford said last year they would not hire anyone with an ‘association with doping’. He said it explained why Team Sky could not and would not sign David Millar, who was banned in 2004 for admitting using EPO. He told CW last year: “We wouldn’t take any of these guys with a doping conviction. Vinokourov and these guys coming back, would we take them? No. As much as we like Dave [Millar], as much as he’s a reformed character, he did what he did.”
Talking about the difficulties of hiring experienced staff, Brailsford told CW last year: “Listen, anybody over the age of 35 or 30 years old in professional cycling is a concern. End of. End of.”
He added: “The point is to run a clean team. I can only run a clean team from the day that it starts.”
At the team’s launch in London in January, Brailsford said: “We will have our own in-house testing process and it will be done in liaison with the UCI and UK Sport. Our strategy will be to work hand-in-hand with the authorities and show this is a clean team.”
Earlier this week, Brailsford was quoted in the French newspaper saying: “At the beginning I didn’t want anyone who had been involved in a doping case but as soon as you look for someone over 35 years old and very experienced you can hardly find anyone who has never had some kind of problem. I might have to revise my judgement.”
He told The Guardian: “We’re exploring all possibilities in terms of reinforcing the experience of the sports directors. We have to be careful in terms of speculation about who we’re talking to but one thing we’re 100 per cent about is that we’re a clean team and that we’ve just ridden the Tour de France as a clean team.”