Blazin' Saddles

Riders in card game shame

Blazin' Saddles

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Two riders were sensationally thrown off the Vuelta this morning by their irate directeur sportif for violating a series of "specific internal team rules" thought to be related to post-dinner interactive entertainment.

The news comes one day after Andy Schleck and Stuart O'Grady were withdrawn from the race by Saxo Bank big wig Bjarne Riis for drinking alcohol over the rest day.

It was reported that these two new riders in question - who cannot be named for legal reasons - were caught playing 'Rummy' after lights-out in their team hotel following stage 10, won by Caisse d'Epargne's Imanol Erviti.

Playing cards - although not against race rules - is highly frowned upon because it is thought to damage sensation in the riders' fingers, the same fingers needed to pull off a swift gear change.

The unnamed directeur sportif of the unnamed team today told reporters of his dismay at having to take such extreme measures.

"It was a hard decision but at the end of the day playing cards is against team rules and is not only disrespectful to the other riders but also to the whole race," he said.

"You also have to appreciate that stage 11 is in the high mountains and the riders' fingers must be in optimum condition. Solitaire is one thing, but this was a game of 'Rummy'. There was only one thing I could have done - and that was ask them to leave."

Both riders involved have accepted their punishment. One, who was widely tipped to make a splash in the Vuelta after an impressive Tour de France this summer, nevertheless stressed the ejection was "a difficult pill to swallow".

"I rode a strong Tour and was playing games of Snap with my rivals every day and there weren't any complaints," he said.

Axel Gere, a leading cycling commentator for Polka Hot magazine, said the whole episode "reeked of double standards".

"Everyone knows that the relationship between this top unnamed rider and his illustrious unnamed manager has been rather strained over the past few weeks," Mr Gere said.

"Not only is the rider underperforming in Spain; there's talk that he, and his partner in card crime, are joining another team in the close season and that has really chaffed his manager's backside, so to speak."

Mr Gere said the decision was highly controversial given the fact that the directeur sportif in question was guilty of far more heinous crimes during his own professional career on two wheels: that of playing football.

"These two riders were caught playing cards which in many people's eyes is hardly a punishable action," he said. "But back in the mid-90s their manager used to prepare for each stage of the Tour by having a kick-around with his team-mates."

Football has long been seen as the worst pastime possible for professional riders. Back in the 80s covert games of 'Babyfoot' were going on behind the scenes but it was largely brushed under the carpet.

But in the 90s there was a huge scandal when, in the 1998 Tour, race officials discovered that a whole team had been organising systematic games of football before and after every stage in the race.

The team's cover was blown when their soigneur was caught trying to smuggle class-A balls, top-quality goalkeeping gloves and illicit pairs of boots over the border on his way to the prologue in Ireland.

A decade later, the directeur sportif behind today's card controversy admitted that he himself had played five-a-side and partaken in penalty shoot-outs with other football aficionados during his lone Tour win in the mid 90s.

Occurring just one day after Schleck and O'Grady were sent home by Riis for a rest-day drinking session, the latest scandal has inevitably drawn comparisons.

"I cannot believe that Andy Schleck has been chucked off the Vuelta for post-dinner drinks by Bjarne Riis - a man who won the Tour himself after post-dinner injections," said Mr Gere.

The latest rumour circulating the peloton is that Riis did not eject his riders for drinking per se - rather because he disagreed with their choice of tipple.

Schleck and O'Grady are said to have enjoyed a pint of lager and a fruit cocktail - drinks not in line with Riis's strict 'bitter or sours' policy.

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