After being snubbed by Amgen Tour of California organiser AEG, Team Type 1-Sanofi's owner Phil Southerland, outraged by his team's exclusion, is accusing AEG of making their invitation contingent upon a $100,000 sponsorship by Sanofi. AEG, however, insists the invitations were based on merit and not payment.
Earlier this week, AEG announced the 16 teams which will take part in this year's race, and while the two other North American Professional Continental teams, Spidertech-C10 and UnitedHealthcare, were invited, Team Type 1-Sanofi was not on the list. Instead, Colombia-Coldeportes and Project 1t4i from the Pro Continental ranks, and Bissell, Exergy, Bontrager-Livestrong and Optum Pro Cycling as Continental teams, completed the list of non-WorldTour teams.
"We were approached on January 29 by AEG with a sponsorship package for Sanofi, which included various benefits such as VIP passes, television spots and various PR opportunities for a total of $100,000," Southerland told Cyclingnews.
"We were told that if we didn't activate [meaning, have Sanofi sign a sponsorship deal -ed.], then we would not be invited. We declined, and we weren't invited."
Aside from being incensed that AEG would omit one of the two US Pro Continental teams, Southerland said that the race's strong-arm tactics, while not officially breaking the UCI's rules against pay-to-play, were questionable.
"I don't disagree with the idea of sponsorship activation, but the invitation shouldn't be contingent upon it. We get paid start money to race Liège - Bastogne - Liège, Critérium International and Tour of Poland. I should think on home soil we'd at least get the same type of treatment."
While Southerland may have interpreted the interaction with AEG as making his invitation contingent upon "sponsor activation", AEG denies that its selection process has ever required sponsor payment for a team's participation.
"At no time have we made team entry contingent on sponsor activation," said AEG's Michael Roth. "In fact, seven of the 16 teams invited this year have no activation at all.
"We based our decisions on a number of things: the make-up of the team, past performances, the current skill set and the outlook for their season.
"I'm proud we've built a race where teams are so desperate to be invited," Roth said. "And we are free to use whatever criteria we want, but we do not base selection on activation."
Other teams which have not been invited to this year's race have confirmed to Cyclingnews that they were never asked to pay in order to secure an invitation, and the previous race promoter, Andrew Messick, who was in charge of the race for the three previous years in which Team Type 1 participated in the Amgen Tour of California, backed Roth.
"It has never been a policy of AEG to require payment to get into the race when I was in charge, and I find it difficult to believe that this has changed," said Messick, who stepped down after last year's race to become the CEO of Ironman. "Over the years there have been numerous teams with no sponsor relationships at all with the race who have been invited.
"Of course, we have encouraged teams to activate: when partners get involved with the race they get additional exposure and it's good for them, for the team and for the race."
When asked if an agreement with a sponsorship might have swayed AEG's decision in a team's favor, Messick said it was one of a large number of factors. "Does it help? Probably. Is it required? No."
Regarding Team Type 1's past participation, Messick said the team had never been a sure bet for inclusion based on its roster. "They were always a bubble team, and one of the final teams in. For a couple years we let them in at the 11th hour because we wanted to support US cycling, but they never made a huge impression.
"From the beginning we made a conscious and explicit decision that every team would be in the race for a good reason: it could be the riders they brought, how they might influence television distribution, that they'd create a better expo or help the race's bottom line. We had to think about what the teams were offering the race, and a lot of it had nothing at all to do with money."
Southerland admits that in the past, his team was invited to the race without having to coerce AEG through sponsorship packages. In 2009, the team "did the race free of charge", he said. But in 2010, Southerland said they were given a similar ultimatum - this time for a $40,000 package. At the time, they were trying to establish the brand with their sponsor and agreed to the terms. But in 2011, when the team turned Pro Continental, Southerland put his foot down and demanded the team be invited and won a bid.
Messick and Roth may have felt that Team Type 1-Sanofi failed to make an impression in past years, but Southerland asserts that while the team "got its butt kicked in 2009", the team rode well in the subsequent years.
Team Type 1-Sanofi's top finisher in 2011 was Alexander Efimkin, who took 13th overall and earned the most aggressive rider award on the Mt. Baldy stage for his tenacious ride as last man standing from the day's breakaway.
Southerland also feels that his current squad brings a lot to the table for the Amgen Tour of California, with Daniele Colli as a cancer survivor and the team's message of hope for Type 1 diabetics, which fits in well with Amgen's partnership with the race.
Southerland said that while he's disappointed to be excluded from the race, "I'm not going to lose sleep over it. We have filled our calendar with other races during that time period - we will be racing in France and at the Tour of Norway," and he hopes to be invited to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado as well.