Any decision on the future of the Astana team has been put back to Friday April 24, according to a report in Gazzetta dello Sport. This means the team will be able to continue racing in the intervening period.
The Italian newspaper claims that the UCI Licence Commission hearing lasted nine hours with Pierre Zappelli, the president of the Licence Commission, deciding to give the Kazakh team time to prepare further documentation and evidence.
The UCI issued a brief statement on Thursday night, confirming that representatives of the UCI, the Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL) and the Astana team appeared before the Licence Commission, although he refused to make any further comment on the matter “as the proceeding is pending”.
The Astana team also agreed not to comment on the case, only saying, “Further information has been requested and we are preparing it.”
Gazzetta dello Sport suggests that the nine-hour hearing was tense, with the UCI and experts from the Sport Sciences department of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL) insisting the team deserves to lose its WorldTour licence, with Astana team manager Alexandre Vinokourov, directeur sportif Dimitriy Fofonov and chief doctor Joost De Maeseneer defending their position.
Gazzetta dello Sport describes it as a "very important political-sporting case,” suggesting that the UCI is divided, with Italian Cycling Federation president Renato Di Rocco and Russian Federation president Igor Makarov (both are members of the UCI Management Committee) openly on Astana’s side. The Italian sports newspaper suggests that the decision not to give an immediate verdict is a sign that Zappelli wants to “demonstrate the independence of the UCI Licence Commission and does not want to accept an already prepared package of accusations and documents”
Nibali’s letter and his role as a “global symbol of the fight against doping”
While the hearing was underway, Astana team leader Vincenzo Nibali posted a photo of himself on Twitter enjoying a pizza and a rest day during training an altitude training camp on Teide in the Canary Islands.
Gazzetta dello Sport claims he submitted a letter to the UCI Licence Commission, sent via email directly to Zappelli. The letter describes Nibali as a “global symbol of the fight against doping”.
The letter was apparently translated into French by his lawyer, who claimed he was “writing in the name of and on behalf of Vincenzo Nibali, the captain of the Astana team, who wants that you knows his thoughts so that you can take a fair decision.”
The letter claims that Nibali is “universally recognised as a global symbol of the fight against doping, and we believe it is very important for a team to have an athlete of this ethical level as a captain.”
Nibali has often spoken out against doping but the letter does not include any direct evidence or examples of why Nibali should be considered such a key figure in the fight against doping.
The letter continues: “We believe that the team that wins the 2013 Giro d’Italia and the 2014 Tour de France and does it with its captain Vincenzo Nibali, the number one cyclist in the world and also a symbol of an honest and clean sport, has to continue to take part in all competitions. In the wider interests of cycling, sport and justice.”
It also questions the key elements of the UCI’s evidence against the Astana team: the police evidence from the Padua investigation and the audit carried on the team by the Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL).
“The audit is certainly important in terms of pure theory but it lacks confronting elements and this makes it weak in practice. It is the first attempt to evaluate a cycling team but it only involves Astana and does not make a comparison with other teams. How can it be said that only Astana does not deserves to have its licence confirmed if the study is not done on all the WorldTour team?”
“The (police) dossier cannot be used. The evidence has not yet been seen by a court and so can’t be considered credible and real. The investigation is still at a precious stage.”
The letter is somewhat misleading as it overlooks several details of both the ISSUL audit and the Padua investigation.
It is true that Astana is the only team whose WorldTour licence is being judged based on evidence and the results of the ISSUL audit. However the team agreed to the audit as one of the conditions attached to the registration of the team in the 2015 WorldTour. While it is true the Padua investigation has yet to formally accuse any of those involved, the 555 pages of evidence have formally been passed onto the Italian Olympic Committee’s anti-doping investigating Procura and so can be used for eventual disciplinary action and suspensions.
Gazzetta dello Sport suggests that Nibali is ready to travel to Geneva for the next hearing in front of the UCI Licence Commission ‘to defend his own honour and that of is team.”
The delay in a decision by the UCI Licence Commission means that the Astana case will likely continue into the summer. Both the Astana team and the UCI are likely to appeal any decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), meaning that Nibali could end up preparing for and riding the Tour de France sub-judice, not knowing the long-term future of the team or of his own career.