In mid-July 2008, Mike Turtur, director of South Australia’s Tour Down Under, was a very worried man. His race was “in crisis” following the decision by 17 of the 18 professional teams that formed the International Cycling Union’s ProTour circuit not to renew their licenses for 2009.

The Tour Down Under had only received entry into the prestigious — though highly controversial — ProTour circuit in September 2007. If the dispute between the UCI and the teams could not be resolved quickly Turtur’s planning for the 2009 event would be, as he told The Advertiser, “quite a mess”. The one professional team that did not strike was the Astana team, which had been banned from the 2008 Tour de France because of its history of doping problems.

In the end the  dispute was resolved and the 2009 Tour Down Under was the most successful since it first ran in 1999. But for Turtur the rest of 2008 was a mix of tension and triumph.

Since early that year he had been engaged in intense negotiations with Lance Armstrong’s management to get the retired American to return to racing in Adelaide, enlisting then-premier Mike Rann and tourism minister Janet Lomax-Smith in support of his quest. Additional support came from formal submissions by then federal health minister Nicola Roxon and the head of Cancer Australia, Ian Oliver.

But by late August another serious glitch had arisen — to return to professional cycling after his retirement in 2005 and race in Adelaide the next year Armstrong was required by UCI rules to comply with the six month “return from general retirement rule”. Armstrong said he’d flagged his intentions of returning to racing with the UCI “sometime in late July”, but he did not make a formal enrolment application until August 1, 2008.

Applying the UCI’s rule meant the earliest that Armstrong could return to racing would be the end of January 2009, two weeks after the start of the Tour Down Under. Lomax-Smith hoped that “common sense” would prevail and Armstrong would be allowed to race in Adelaide, a return organisers described as “an absolute coup”.

By early October the UCI had backflipped and agreed to allow Armstrong — who was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles overnight over doping allegations — to race in Adelaide. Rann was “thrilled” and congratulated UCI president Pat McQuade on making a “great decision”. In a statement the UCI said at the time:

“This decision has been made after a careful assessment of the situation, taking into account both the applicable regulations and the imperatives of the fight against doping, which is the UCI’s number one priority.”

Five weeks later Turtur was elected president of the Oceania Cycling Confederation, an organisation, according to some at least, in decay and without a purpose or future. Notwithstanding the merits or otherwise of the regional body, election to that position automatically gained Turtur a seat on the UCI’s powerful management committee, on which he sat for the first time soon after the running of the 2009 Tour Down Under.

Since late 2008 Turtur has arguably been the most powerful man in Australian cycling. His seat at the table of the body responsible for the worldwide administration of cycling makes him one of the most powerful in world cycling.

But questions about Turtur’s role in getting Armstrong to Australia in 2009 — and more beside — remain. Following the release of the USADA “reasoned decision” on Armstrong, Cycling Australia president Klaus Mueller responded to questions about Turtur from the ABC’s James Bennett:

JAMES BENNETT: Have you spoken with Mike Turtur about his role in enabling Lance Armstrong to come to Australia in 2009 despite the fact that he didn’t have the requisite six months of biological passport data behind him?

KLAUS MUELLER: No, no.

JAMES BENNETT: Do you need to?

KLAUS MUELLER: Possibly.

Apparently Turtur is unable to speak on this issue, a spokeswoman telling the ABC that his position on the UCI board prevented him from responding to questions about whether or not he lobbied the UCI in 2008 in relation to Armstrong’s early return.

In the years after Armstrong’s return in 2009 Turtur remained loyal and supportive to him during a period when many have cast serious doubt on Armstrong’s integrity. There can be no doubt Armstrong was good for the Tour Down Under — financially at least — and that he has raised the profile of cancer awareness in South Australia.

Another lingering issue is Turtur’s possible involvement in, or knowledge of, the payments by the South Australian government for Armstrong’s attendance at the 2009, 2010 and 2011 editions of the race.

Peter Fray

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