THE FIGHT INSIDE CYCLING

Times Staff Writer

Bob Stapleton is investing more than $10 million of his own money to sponsor a cycling team that was kicked out of the Tour de France last summer.

He has named it Team High Road. "We want to be transparently drug-free," Stapleton said. "I still believe in this sport even when it's not easy."

Team High Road is one of four teams racing in this year's Amgen Tour of California that have committed nearly $500,000 each for doping programs that go beyond those of the International Cycling Union (UCI). The others are Slipstream Chipotle, CSC and Astana.

They have made public their intensive drug-testing schedules, embraced a new "biological passport" that is supposed to record every tiny variation in a cyclist's blood and urine profiles, and committed to keeping track of where their cyclists are at almost all times.

This continues the fight against doping that has tarnished the last two Tour de France races.

In 2006, champion Floyd Landis was accused of failing a doping test and eventually had his title taken away. Last year, with less than a week left in the race, overall leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark was told to leave after his Rabobank team said it could not verify Rasmussen's whereabouts when he missed prerace doping tests.

T-Mobile, a German powerhouse for nearly two decades that produced Tour de France winners Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich, was tainted by Riis' admission he was doping during his Tour de France win in 1996, and by doping allegations against Ullrich, who as a result hasn't raced in two years.

T-Mobile withdrew its financial sponsorship last season, and it became Team High Road.

"What, are all the rest of us the low road?" said Michael Ball, owner of Rock Racing, a new team that has signed several doping-tarnished riders.

Stapleton, a native of Riverside who made his fortune in wireless telecommunications, said he chose the name only to make a statement about his own team. "We will not have a rider who fails a drug test," Stapleton said. "It just can't happen."

But making a new commitment to anti-doping hasn't helped Astana, whose entire team was ejected from last summer's Tour de France when lead rider Alexandre Vinokourov failed a doping test after the team time trial.

The Kazakhstan-owned Astana was re-formed last fall with several riders and key management personnel from the Discovery Channel team after the cable network chose not to renew its sponsorship. The new riders include Alberto Contador of Spain, last year's Tour de France winner, and Levi Leipheimer, the third-place finisher in Paris and defending Tour of California champion.

But last week, Amaury Sport Organization, which owns and runs the Tour de France, said Astana was not invited to the 2008 race. While ASO said it was hesitant to take a chance on a team that had so flagrantly disregarded its doping policies a year ago, cycling insiders say the exclusion of Astana is more about a power struggle within the sport.

The owners of what are called the grand tours -- the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta -- are fighting with the UCI over who has control of what teams enter what races.

Astana, with former Discovery Channel sports director Johan Bruyneel in charge, has adopted the same drug testing system used by CSC this year.

Veteran American Bobby Julich, who rides for CSC, said the Astana decision was a disappointment. "The team had serious issues last year and now the new guys are paying the price," Julich said. "It was a big gesture on Bruyneel's part to come to that team and change everything, to use the same anti-doping program as us.

"Now, to have them not allowed to start most of the big races of the season? With all the power struggles, this year is going to be a mess."

Stapleton said he doesn't know what to make of the Astana decision.

"I have very mixed feelings," he said. "I have come into the sport trying not to prejudge anybody, set up a clean slate and have a code of conduct that applies to anyone. So far I can say that the rules, measurements and enforcement are applying to everybody."

Team High Road has moved away from its German roots. Stapleton had his winter training camp in San Luis Obispo.

American George Hincapie, who rode with Lance Armstrong in each of Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories, is Team High Road's most prominent rider. Stapleton touts the rapid advancement of younger, lesser-known racers on his team such as Gerald Ciolek of Germany and Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg.

"Our sport is really at the precipice," Stapleton said. "I came into it 18 months ago full of optimism. I thought the problems were obvious and that everyone agreed unified action was needed. It only seems like now there is beginning to be hope that everybody gets it. There is still a struggle on two issues. Failure to take adequate action on doping and an inability of all entities -- promoters, organizers, team owners, riders -- to work together."

Julich says he hopes people are patient with cycling.

"We're making massive changes," he said. "We are doing what should have been done 10 years ago. I never could understand how guys would show up at the Tour de France absolutely flying after having been in no races before the Tour. That can't happen now."

But that was said last year and the year before.

"I understand people are skeptical," Stapleton said. "So now we can't fail."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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TOUR OF CALIFORNIA

* Begins Sunday: Prologue at Palo Alto.

* Concludes Feb. 24: Final stage (No. 7) Santa Clarita to Pasadena.

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