By Hedwig Kröner
Swedish ProTour team Unibet.com is currently in the very unfortunate situation of being a pawn in the power play between the UCI and the Grand Tour organisers over the ProTour. ASO, RCS and Unipublic, the managing companies of 11 ProTour races, decided last December not to let the squad take the start of their events, because it had not yet received a ProTour license by the UCI at the time. Moreover, the team has to deal with the fact that it is currently not allowed to race under its official name in France, because of a legal procedure between the online gambling company and the French lottery.
Two days ago the Giro d'Italia organiser RCS reiterated that the team was not invited to its races, and just yesterday during the presentation of Paris-Nice, race director Christian Prudhomme confirmed that the team would not be invited in the ASO-organised events on French soil (Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Tour de France, Paris-Tours).
All of this could put Unibet.com in serious danger. "This could mean the end of our team," manager Koen Terry told news agency Belga. "The Swedish sponsors of our team are extremely unhappy and I can understand them. They invested millions, but are still waiting for returns - even if the question mark jerseys were still a good publicity operation. A sponsor wants his team to race under its own name, and our team will end up disappearing if it can't use its official jerseys. We were euphoric on the day we received the admission to the ProTour, and now all of this is turning into a nightmare. We are the victims, so we have to speak out about this."
Team spokesman Manuel De Smet hoped that the UCI will find a way to solve the problem. "We are the hostages in a conflict over the ProTour, and we can't do anything else than to wait for a solution of the UCI," he told Belgian newspaper Dernière Heure des Sports.
Discouraged team manager Hilaire Van der Schueren agreed, and was angry that the Giro d'Italia organiser RCS preferred Italian Pro Continental team Tinkoff. "What can we do? We have a ProTour license and we paid a lot of money for the riders we signed. For the Giro, we have Rujano, who was third in 2005, and Pena, ninth last year. For Sanremo, we have Cooke and Carrara, tenth last year and sixth at the Giro di Lombardia... Unibet.com has invested a lot financially, but also on an ethical level. And what happens? We're not allowed in the ProTour (races) and they prefer Hamilton's team? It's a scandal."
At the beginning of February, the UCI threatened the organisers to sanction their events, but UCI president Pat McQuaid has not yet announced any concrete measures.