By Shane Stokes in Majorca
Earlier this week RCS Sport announced that it would not be inviting Unibet.com to ride the Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-Sanremo or the Giro d'Italia. Despite it being a ProTour team, the Italian organisers were following ASO's and Unipublic's earlier decisions to block the Swedish-registered team. Many within cycling have interpreted these moves as direct provocation to the UCI in the ongoing disagreement over the ProTour series.
On Thursday Cyclingnews spoke to three director sportifs before the start of the final stage of the Challenge Volta a Mallorca, getting their feedback on the situation and asking what they thought should happen.
Sean Yates of the Discovery Channel team was not impressed. "It is a mess. What I can gather from my attendance of the meetings with the teams association [AIGCP], which includes ProTour teams and others but which is mainly attended by the ProTour teams, is they all stand by the ProTour system. In my mind, that should say that if they [the Grand Tour organisers] are going to exclude Unibet from Paris-Nice, that means everybody should stick together. Otherwise, what is the point in having a union?
"Okay it is Unibet... they got a rather a late entry into the ProTour system and they are not the biggest team out there, or the most well-known or the most well-connected, but that shouldn't have any bearing on the outcome. Unless they all decide to blow the ProTour, it should mean that the teams should say, 'we are not going to go to Paris-Nice, we are not going to Tirreno until the thing is sorted.'
"Either that, or they say that we scrap the ProTour system. This is all a mess to me. There is no point saying in the meetings that we are going to stick together, that we are not going to reduce the ProTour teams to 18, we are not going to let them boss us around [unless they do that]. It has long been a problem in cycling that the teams and the riders are just bossed around by the organisers. It is very antiquated in that respect. So they should say, 'Sod it, we are not going to come."
Yates feels that Unibet's smaller size has affected things, making them have less of a presence. "If it was Discovery or if it was Crédit Agricole, it would be different," he said. "Roger Legeay would be jumping up and down saying that we should all boycott. But because it is Unibet, maybe that has a bearing on it.
"The other organisers [RCS Sport and Unipublic] are sticking with ASO because that is the easy option for them. ASO feel that they are in a position to make up their own rules, given the amount of publicity that the Tour attracts. At the same time they can't take us for fools.
He says that greater room for a subjective selection criteria – as advocated by the Grand Tour organisers - is a bad idea. "From what I can see in the past, they like to invite the French teams, even if they do virtually nothing the whole year. They just rely on getting selected for the Tour and then they get one good result in the Tour and, obviously being a French team, everyone is happy and they get another five years of sponsorship. The way the Tour helps out their own basically rubs me up the wrong way.
"After all, I thought the idea of the Tour was to have the best teams in the world? Okay, the teams are at a slightly higher level now but in the past they have invited teams like Chazal or whoever, teams who can't even get out of their own way."
Gerolsteiner were one of three teams which RCS Sport said this week had not replied to their requests for confirmation that they would be taking part in their races. Director sportif Christian Henn said that he wasn't happy with what was happening with Unibet.com and the ProTour, and that the team didn't see why they should request participation in the Italian events.
"The situation is not so nice. I hope in the next days or weeks there is decision. For us there is not a problem, but in the newspapers they said that we are not in Milan-Sanremo, we are not in Tirreno. That was only because we didn't send any papers [to RCS Sport]. For us, a ProTour team, is as normal that you have to start the race, even though the organisation wants us to send a paper to say that we want to start.
"Anyway, what will happen is something that will be decided in the next few weeks. The UCI have to find a way so that everybody is happy because they know the situation is not good for cycling. There are problems already with the doping, and now with this at the races, it is not good. It is a difficult situation, really difficult."
José Luis Jaimerena Lurnagaray of Caisse d'Epargne echoed this sentiment. "I think things are very complicated. We will see what happens in Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, because that race is now involved as well. I don't know... it is very complicated. We might have to wait a bit longer to see what happens. But it is bad.
When asked if the other teams would show solidarity with Unibet.com and not start Paris-Nice, he said he was unsure. "That would be expected, but I don't know what will happen. We don't have much information. This is the first opportunity to see the position of everyone concerned. What you might expect is that everyone [the teams] will decide a common cause but we will see. If that isn't the case, what will happen? Will the ProTour be broken? We will see."
As is the case with Gerolsteiner, Caisse d'Epargne are also one of the three teams who RCS Sport said have not replied officially requesting a place in their races. Like Henn, Lurnagaray feels that the fact they have a ProTour licence should mean that they should not have to ask for an invitation.
"We want to do the Giro and those races, of course. If the ProTour exists, it is not necessary to have something... you have rights and obligations. Last year it was not necessary to show papers... why did it change this year? Because the Grand Tours feel that they are stronger than before.
"If we have a ProTour [series], it is not necessary to confirm these things – we have a ProTour. Anyway, I don't know what will happen. Perhaps by the start of Paris-Nice or Tirreno, we will have a better idea [what way things are going]."