By Shane Stokes
Capitalising on the fallout from the collapse of Giancarlo Ferretti's planned Sony Ericsson squad, the Unibet.com team has revealed that it is in negotiations with double Tour of Italy winner Gilberto Simoni. Simoni showed his current excellent form when he finished a close second to Paolo Bettini in last Saturday's Tour of Lombardy, and the Unibet.com team - currently known as MrBookmaker.com - is hoping that the signing of the Italian would help it earn a place in the ProTour in 2006.
According to a press release from the Belgian team, manager Hilaire Van der Schueren and Paul Degeyter of the SEM management agency are in discussions with several riders about a place on the team for next year.
"The two men are in contact with several riders," confirmed team director general Koen Terryn in the release. "In particular with Gilberto Simoni, two time champion of the Tour of Italy and second this year, plus the Quesada brothers who took eight victories in 2005 and an impressive fifth place in the final classification of the Vuelta. These are our favourites."
"If we succeed in attracting these riders we will apply immediately to the ProTour. I presume then that we would be favourite for the 20th and final licence."
Terryn will be aware that their application is very late, but he uses every argument at his disposal to argue the team's case. "I cannot believe that they [the UCI licencing commission] could offer five licences to France and only two to Belgium. That would show a certain lack of respect for our country and its tradition of cycling, in particular as it was always the goal of the UCI to globalise the sport of cycling.
"Unibet.com is a European company quoted on the stock exchange, which is active in 11 countries. The accounts of the companies are audited, as are those of the cycling team. I believe that these are things which the UCI hold in high regard."
Van der Schueren feels that the strength of the team should play a part in the UCI's decision. "At the moment we are waiting for the signature of Simoni and the Quesada brothers to apply to the UCI," he said. "Don't forget that we already have such big names as Baden Cooke, previous winner of the green jersey, as well as 2005 Tour of Burgos winner Juan Carlos Dominguez. As late as yesterday, we signed Marco Zanotti. And let's not forget our joker VDB!"
However, according to UCI rules, Unibet.com would appear to have missed the boat. When asked by Cyclingnews last week if any teams other than Comunidad Valenciana, Sony Ericsson and Ag2R Prévoyance were in the running, ProTour manager Alain Rumpf confirmed that those three teams were the only ones who had applied for a licence in time. Comunidad Valenciana had already withdrawn their application by that point, while the Sony Ericsson project was just two days from its collapse.
"MrBookmaker.com is not a candidate," said Rumpf last week. "The deadline for lodging an application was the 31st of May and they did not do that."