By Shane Stokes
On a day when Jimmy Casper won the first stage of the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen in Belgium and Baden Cooke took over the leader’s jersey in the Tour of Murcia in Spain, the Unibet.com team have had disappointment in France with regards to Sunday’s Paris-Nice.
After being left off the start list by ASO, the Swedish-registered squad took a court action on Wednesday to try to force the organiser to grant them a ride in the opening ProTour-counting race. However a judge in the Nanterre region near Paris closed the door to this solution on Friday, removing the last hope for the team of getting a ride.
Full details of the ruling have yet to be clarified, but general manger Koen Terryn said that he was not happy with the ruling. "I am disappointed - I can't believe it, because even with a neutral jersey, we cannot participate [in Paris-Nice]."
Terryn said that he was not sure what the judge’s reason was, or if it would also apply to other races promoted by ASO. It will be important to ascertain if the judge sided with ASO in their insistence that they have no binding obligation to invite Unibet - something which was reinforced after Monday’s peace deal with the UCI - or if his ruling related to French laws prohibiting advertising by gambling companies.
If it is the latter, Terryn told Cyclingnews that this could have very big implications for sport in France. "I am very disappointed, and what the judge has said has a lot of consequences [if he rejected the team’s application due to the gambling legislation]. Werder Bremen and AC Milan, the champions league football teams, are sponsored by Bwin. So now, is it the case that even with the neutral jersey they may not participate any more in the champions league if they are playing in France against French teams? If so, the decision of the judge has a very, very big impact.
"It was very strange to see that the procureur de l’Etat (state prosecutor) was in the same room as the judge and came in two or three times with an intervention. Normally this person is only involved in big, big cases."
He’s not giving up, though. "On the plus side, Jimmy Casper won another race, and today Baden Cooke took over the leader’s jersey in Murcia. We need to fight with the Devil, but we have God’s hands with us!" he added, with some humour.
A long term solution on the way?
Koen and the team will continue to campaign to get into ASO’s races. Clarification of the reason for Friday’s decision will show them if the ruling relates only to Paris-Nice, or if it will have longer-reaching consequences.
Outside France, he believes that the chances of riding RCS Sport's events such as the Giro d’Italia may have improved after the team clarified to organiser Angelo Zomegnan that their sponsor is fully legal.
"We are working with the lawyer in Italy as well and there we have proved to the organiser of the Giro that we really have a license in that country. So our problems in Italy should be solved. We may miss Tirreno-Adriatico for organisational reasons, but Mr Zomegnan was really helpful. He saw that we are not illegal so that will be to our advantage."
As mentioned by Cyclingnews on Thursday, a landmark ruling by the European court of justice has made it possible that laws preserving state gambling monopolies in countries like France could be ruled illegal. On Tuesday, the ECT found in favour of a claim by UK-licenced bookmaker Stanleybet International that Italian authorities were not complying with an existing EU law on freedom of businesses to provide services.
Terryn says that he is hopeful that this could remove any question mark over the use of Unibet.com branded jerseys in France and other countries. "The case in Italy is something which has gone in our advantage," he said. "The European court has said that now all this needs to be completed, that each member state of Europe needs to find a solution that they stop with the monopolies. I believe the French state now needs to give some explanation to the European Court on the 27th of March.
"Perhaps this could all work in our favour because other member states like Italy have given up the monopoly and you can ask for a [gambling] license. In Sweden that will be the case around July or August. In Belgium they are working on the license system, so the only one that is causing a big problem is France."
He said that the team has been in regular contact with the UCI since Monday’s agreement with the Grand Tour organisers over the ProTour. Terryn suggests that the governing body did not have fully accurate information at the meeting.
"The UCI were very surprised to see that, for example in Italy, we are not illegal at all. When they were in the meeting earlier in the week, the IPCT told them we were illegal as did the three Grand Tours. But now we have given them the proof to show them that the sponsor is not illegal in every state."