By Shane Stokes
Friday's announcement by Tailwind Sports that the company had given up hope of finding a replacement sponsor for Discovery Channel means that their ProTour slot is potentially up for grabs. UCI President Pat McQuaid has said that a decision will be made on it by the ProTour Council (CUPT - Conseil UCI ProTour), but it appears that it may indeed enable another team to step in if the demand is there.
"It is up to the CUPT to decide when they meet in September, if they decide to take a strategic decision in relation to it," he said on Saturday. "If the license does become available, that would mean that it would be available for other potential ProTour teams to apply for it. There is a process in place at the moment; there are some licenses up for renewal at the end of this year, and there would be applications for those licenses. This would make another opportunity."
McQuaid stated that losing a US team from the sport is not the ideal situation, with regards to the globalisation and growth of cycling. He said that he didn't feel that the controversial decision to sign Ivan Basso [plus the resulting negative publicity the team earned when the Italian was banned] was a crucial factor in not getting a replacement.
"I think the Basso situation was a strategic error on their part, but I don't necessarily think that it impacted on their ability to find a new sponsor. According to what I read, they did have a sponsor and were 90% ready to roll, but then when they examined the scenario within the sport, they decided not to do it.
"That aspect of it is worrying for me and for the UCI, because you are looking at a team that adds an international perspective to the sport not continuing, because they see the resistance to the sport going completely international and global. That is a worry."
The team took first and third overall in the Tour de France this year but in not being able to clinch a new deal, it illustrates the precarious situation cycling is in now. The ongoing doping crises plus the general uncertainty about the future of the sport due to the various political struggles mean that sponsors are more likely to be nervous about becoming involved. McQuaid said that riders need to pay heed to this in order to ensure the development of cycling.
"The Discovery situation should be a wake-up call to riders [on other teams] that they cannot take sponsors for granted. Sponsors won't necessarily stay in the sport, even though we did get good news yesterday with regards to T-Mobile and Milram. But by the same token, Discovery are going. An American team is important aspect of cycling, they are very relevant to cycling, but they are leaving.
"The fact that such a big sponsor is leaving and another is not stepping in shows that riders should think about the future for teams and their own future," he said, referring to the fact that there is not currently a big queue of new companies trying to get in. "Those that are there should not get into doping or anything like that, because that is one of the biggest threats [to sponsorship]."
Discovery's absence would mean that the sport would be without a US ProTour team. However, while McQuaid said that Slipstream/Chipotle are considering its way forward, he seems to play down the possibility that it might step up to that level in 2008 rather than 2009, as originally envisaged.
"I don't know if it could happen. I have had discussions with them, they are thinking about it. It wasn't in their original plan to go through [and apply] this year, they were certainly going to go for it next year. They think it might be a bit soon, the learning curve might be a bit steep if they were to apply for it this year."