News feature, December 2, 2006.
The Astana team's ProTour license application was recently rejected by the UCI, which claimed the team did not submit their application in full in the required timeline. However, as Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes discovers from speaking with the Astana team general manager, there is more to the story.
Astana general manager Marc Biver has spoken of his disappointment with the UCIs decision not to grant the team a ProTour licence, claiming that the team has been treated unfairly and asked to provide financial guarantees which he said exceeded the level requested for other applicants.
The former Tour de Suisse organiser said that a last minute requirement to provide a bank guarantee for the full €12 million budget led to the team's application being delayed and that they will exercise their right to appeal their case to the UCIs licence commission next week. However he states that if this is rejected, the team has chosen not to appeal to CAS and will instead race as a Continental Professional squad in 2007.
Cyclingnews contacted Biver following the news that the UCI had turned down the application. They were one of three teams going for the licence slot previously held by Phonak. Yet while Barloworld and Unibet.com have seen their bids go forward for consideration, Astana were told that theirs was unsuccessful. He gave his reaction to this on Friday afternoon, and talked about the plan of action going forward.
"The thing is, if Manolo doesn't get punished for what he has done, I really wonder what you need to do in the cycling world to be punished. For me, it is nonsense. What else need you do to be banned from the sport?" - Mark Biver on why Manolo Saiz should step away from the sport of cycling
"The reaction is certainly one of disappointment, given the manner that that we have been treated," he said. "We have the feeling that we have not been treated with the same equality as the other teams. In addition to that, the UCI stated that we cannot have the Kazakh cycling federation as a sponsor; this, in our opinion, is wrong because the cycling federation in Kazakhstan has the same financial possibilities as any other sponsor in cycling. So therefore we cannot accept the decision."
"By tomorrow we will, as the rules say, go to the UCI and deliver then a memo with our opinion and with our point of view."
According to UCI president Pat McQuaid, a sitting of the licensing commission on December 7th gives Astana recourse to appeal. If that is unsuccessful, they also have an option to take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. However, Biver said that they will not pursue the latter path.
"If the decision is still negative [after the meeting of the licensing commission], we have decided not to make an appeal," he said. "The reason for that is for us, basically, it is not a question of life or death to be part of the ProTour. And actually, most of our riders prefer to be Continental Professional rather ProTour. Their reasoning is that we would not be obliged to have such a heavy programme over the year you can more or less select the races that you would like to take part in. As a result, it is a less stressful programme for the riders and also less expensive one for the team, in terms of cost."
When he spoke to Cyclingnews on Thursday about the failed ProTour application, UCI President Pat McQuaid was clear in the reasoning for the decision. Quite simply, they havent followed the regulations, he said. They [Astana] didnt get their information in on time. It is as simple as that. The regulations are there for all the teams to follow. They know the times, they know the dates, they know what they need to get in and the correct paperwork wasnt in on time."
Biver acknowledges that this is the case, but claims that unusual requests were made of them and that this caused the problem. "As the UCI was not happy with us having Kazakh Cycling Federation as the sponsor, we were finally told that we have to deliver one hundred percent of the 2007 budget with a bank guarantee. On the 20th of November the federation had €8.4 million on the bank account from their sponsors, and therefore was not able to give a bank guarantee for €12 million."
"By November 28 we were able to deliver the remaining amount to fulfill the €12 million, but the UCI said at that point that it was too late. They said that the deadline was the 20th and because we had delivered the remaining 28% of the budget on the 28th, they could therefore not take our candidacy into consideration."
Biver said that they were made aware of the request for a 100% bank guarantee, but that it was at a very late stage. "We were aware a couple of days prior to the 20th. But no sponsor in the world is able to bring up their backing to 12 million in a couple of days! We only found out about that requirement very close to the deadline. Also, no other sponsor was requested to provide a bank guarantee for their full budget; we have been the only one. "
"The reason the UCI gave is that they are saying that the federation does not have financial potential to pay. But that begs the question, is a [regular] sponsor able to fulfill the obligation? Nobody knows."
Biver gave clarification of the situation as regards the backing for the team. "Our sponsor is the Kazakh Cycling Federation. Very simply, the reason is that the federation has support from the Kazakh industry and that we, the professional cycling team, are the flagship of the federation. Therefore the federation is financing that flagship, in other words our team."
Asked as to his response to this, McQuaid said on Friday evening that he couldnt say much for now. "I wouldnt really like to comment in any more detail on this because this situation is still not closed," he stated. "The licence commission is still considering the whole situation and is due to meet on the 7th of December. So I would prefer to wait until after them before making any comments on it."
One sponsor, two ProTour applications
The Astana team are in the somewhat unique situation that they are, willingly or not, involved in two applications for a ProTour licence. The first is that fronted by Biver, backed by the Kazakh federation and the countrys Prime Minister Daniel Akhmetov, and led by riders such as Vuelta a España winner Alexandre Vinokourov, Andrey Kashechkin, and Andreas Klöden.
The second is, somewhat bizarrely, the team fronted by Manolo Saiz. The Spaniard was in charge of the original setup, Liberty Seguros Wurth, but was arrested in the Operación Puerto affair this year. He had been under surveillance for some time, and at the time of the swoop in Madrid, was allegedly found in possession of doping products and a large sum of money.
Even if the reports are true and he claims they are not Saiz has doggedly clung on to the hope that he will be in charge of a big team in 2007. He applied for the retention of his ProTour contract and, while they stated they had grave reservations about the decision, the UCI was forced to allow him to keep his license on condition that he is able to provide the necessary financial guarantees.
Cyclingnews has learned that Saiz has put forward Astana as his chief backers for 2007, even though the sponsors themselves have stated that they want no part in a team run by him. For his part, the Spaniard insists he has a binding contract and, furthermore, has existing contracts with riders such as Vinokourov. Hence, the situation where one set of backers [the conglomerate of Kazakh businesses] has been nominated as the sponsor for two ProTour applications.
Biver confirmed on Friday that this is the case. "That is correct, yes. Manolo has said that Astana is the backer for his team in his application. However, Astana cancelled the contract with Manolo because of the doping problem, because of [what happened at] the Tour. It was because he was involved in the scandal and that Astana said that they don't want to work with this gentleman. In early August, Astana resigned from the contract with Manolo, but still left him with money that they had paid."
The Swiss doesnt appear worried about the situation. "First of all, Manolo has not been able to show that he has a sponsor. Certainly I don't believe that he was able to deliver a bank guarantee for 30% of the salaries. I don't see any issue from Manolo. But if there is, then for sure it will end up in the courts."
He is of the opinion that Saiz should step away from the sport. "The thing is, if Manolo doesn't get punished for what he has done, I really wonder what you need to do in the cycling world to be punished. For me, it is nonsense. What else need you do to be banned from the sport?"
Going forward he is optimistic about the future, with or without a ProTour licence. "When we meet the UCI, we will just defend our position and our points. And if it is not accepted, then no problem. We will not make an appeal, but will go for Continental Professional status."
"I think that we have a great team and great staff. The motivation within the team is very strong, especially now more than ever because of the difficulty that we have experienced. On the eighth of January we will go to the training camp in Majorca and stay there until around the 20th. Then we will start racing in the Tour of Qatar."
I think a good season is in store. I am sure that the team will be going very well in 2007," he concludes.