News feature: April 12, 2007
Unibet.com gained their ProTour license, but their bid to start many of the ProTour events has been stymied by staunch opposition from the Amaury Sport Organisation, RCS Sport and Unipublic, the organisers of the Grand Tours and many other ProTour events, including Paris-Roubaix. After being denied a start in Paris-Roubaix, the organisers and the UCI supposedly came to a compromise that would allow the team consideration for further events. However, they've been denied entry into Paris-Roubaix, and were left off the list of teams being considered for the Giro d'Italia. Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé caught up with the UCI leaders in Deinze to talk about the situation.
Unibet.com got a late start to the ProTour season - their squad was left off the start lists for Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, which meant the team lost valuable opportunities to accumulate points toward the series standings. They then went on to start Milan-Sanremo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, and the Basque Tour, as well as fielding a strong team for Gent-Wevelgem. UCI president Pat McQuaid and ProTour manager Alain Rumpf were at the start of Gent-Wevelgem to throw their support behind the Unibet.com team. "From a legal point of view we haven't got many options, but from a supporting point of view there's a lot we can do so that's why we're here, to support the Unibet team and the ProTour," McQuaid said to Cyclingnews.
Much of the objection to the team centres around the legality of Unibet.com using the team to advertise their online gambling services in countries where such advertising is supposedly illegal. Belgium is no different, and before the race, rumours were flying that the Swedish registered team would not be allowed to start in the semi-classic because of the legal situation of its sponsor in Belgium.
The day before Gent-Wevelgem started, Marc Callu from the Belgian gambling commission said that their commission has been producing official reports on similar violations during the past few years, just like they did for Easter Sunday's Tour of Flanders.
"There's a legal avenue for us which we will investigate. There has to be a solution for the short term" -UCI president Pat McQuaid on the Unibet.com vs. ASO situation
Violating the Belgian gambling law can result in a penalty of up to three years in prison and a 25,000€ fine. After this warning the Unibet.com team offered to start with their question-mark shirts, but at the start in Deinze the Unibet riders took to the course in their normal jersey. The team was given 'official reports' for their participation at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem, meaning that fines will follow. Marc Callu was quoted saying that, "the Belgian law mill works slow, but it grinds fine!" But in the end, Unibet.com was allowed to race by the organiser, even though he also made himself susceptible to a fine by doing so.
However, the team has been left out of the wildcard invitations for Tour de France organiser ASO's Classic races (Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Flèche Wallonne), and were further left out of the running for the Giro d'Italia by RCS Sport. McQuaid and Rumpf's appearance in Deinze made a point in the ongoing feud between the world governing body of cycling and the most powerful race organiser, ASO, and revealed that the power struggle is far from over.
Now, the UCI is planning to file suit against the ASO and RCS Sport, the organiser of the Giro d'Italia and Tirreno-Adriatico. "There's no reason why Unibet should not have been invited to Tirreno-Adriatico. RCS [Sport] broke the agreement we reached on March 5, so we're currently looking into the possibilities of taking legal action against ASO and RCS [Sport]," McQuaid told Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé at the start of the race in Deinze.
"The teams have to decide whether they want our transparent rules or the strange rules from the ASO," said McQuaid. "It's up to the teams and riders to show solidarity with their colleagues from Unibet - it's their work and otherwise we might get anarchy as the ASO and RCS clearly have another agenda than we have." McQuaid sees an 'agenda' behind the organiser's decision to exclude Unibet.com, "I have the impression they only want to harm the ProTour and the UCI," McQuaid said.
While the ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic have stood fast behind their decision to include only the ProTour teams which were licensed at the start of December in their events (the current ProTour teams minus Astana and Unibet.com), the UCI-president hinted that the organisers would soon find the matter in the hands of the courts. "There's a legal avenue for us which we will investigate. There has to be a solution for the short term," McQuaid said. Unibet's manager Jacques Hanegraaf joined the conversation and clearly enjoyed the words of support from the UCI-president. "For some people we're not personae non gratae, but team non grata," Hanegraaf said. "We can only sue the UCI, but they're not our enemy, we should focus on those who really cause the issue."
Despite the issue being a clear threat to the future of the ProTour and of the professional racing season, at least for the events organised by these three groups, but the peloton just isn't unified on a stance, Hanegraaf suggested. "There isn't much solidarity in the peloton, probably there is a feeling of angst in their minds. In direct conversations they do make clear that they're annoyed with the situation. But I assume they wouldn't mind if there's one team less in the ProTour. The ASO didn't agree on the selection procedure for next year's Tour de France, they wait for September. But the teams will better read fairy tales if they think things well be settled then. We would be better off seeking solidarity for a solution."
Hanegraaf pointed out to Cyclingnews that there is a need for solidarity in the peloton. "As a team, we should show that we're going for a consensus but the teams are showing a ostrich mentality. The result of March 5 wasn't an agreement, it was a summarisation of the chaos of the past two years."
Now that Unibet is facing a fight for participation in the Ardennes classics Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, there is another sense of déjà vu for Hanegraaf. "We were completely surprised that we are not allowed to start there. It's especially annoying for the riders as they have no certainty about their program. It seems to me the ASO and RCS want to frighten the organisers with their decisions. If there are any organisers who are hesitating, they should contact us as soon as possible," said Hanegraaf.
Cyclingnews' recent coverage of the ProTour-Grand Tours split
October 4, 2008 - New ASO chief to maintain values
September 26, 2008 - UCI declares peace, appoints new VP
August 30, 2008 - UCI re-signs five ProTour races
August 22, 2008 - ProTour: Bouncing back or lame duck?
August 19, 2008 - Stapleton analyses 'world calendar'
August 18, 2008 - Feedback on 'world calendar'
August 18, 2008 - UCI announces 'world calendar'