Contrary to assertions from his lawyer, Wout van Aert is not completely in the clear to sign for a new team in 2019. The UCI has, as was reported on Thursday, granted the cyclo-cross world champion permission to negotiate with other teams after his bitter split from Veranda’s Willems-Crelan, but the governing body may still take action against him should he lose the legal case against his former team in the Belgian courts.
At lunchtime on Thursday, Van Aert’s lawyer, Walter Van Steenbrugge, told Belgian news agency Belga that they had received the 'green light' from the UCI for the rider to complete a transfer to a new team before December 31.
Van Aert was signed to Veranda’s Willems-Crelan until the end of 2019 but he ‘unilaterally terminated’ his contract in September after voicing his displeasure at the team’s attempted mergers, first with Aqua Blue Sport and then with Roompot-Nedelandse Loterij. Sniper Cycling, the holding company that owns the Veranda’s team, filed a lawsuit for breach of contract, and threatened to block a move to a new team in 2019 unless financial compensation was received.
Van Aert, keen to bring forward his 2020 move to LottoNL-Jumbo, refused to settle, and on Thursday his lawyers received a letter from the UCI that they claimed paved the way for a clean break from Sniper. Seen by Cyclingnews, the letter does state that Van Aert can sign for another team, but also that the UCI could take action further down the line, with the governing body essentially awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit.
"Pending a ruling in the Belgian courts on the validity of the motives for termination put forward by the rider, with the very existence of the termination of the contract not being in question, the UCI could not oppose the rider signing for another professional continental team, that being on the condition that it occurs within the transfer window,” states the letter from the UCI.
"We therefore draw your attention to the fact that the rider must have been signed by a professional continental road cycling team between now and December 31, in accordance with article 2.16.041 a and b of the UCI regulations.
"Please also note that the UCI will closely follow this case and reserves the possibility of bringing disciplinary proceedings, as set out in the UCI regulations, against all parties involved, in the event that the Belgian courts judge that the rider breached his contract."
While the letter refers to Van Aert signing for a Professional Continental team, Steenbrugge confirmed that his understanding was the this also applies to WorldTour teams.
Contacted by Cyclingnews, Sniper Cycling’s lawyers rejected assertions from Van Aert’s lawyers that the UCI had given the ‘green light’ for Van Aert to walk away from Sniper.
"The news given by Van Aert’s lawyer is incomplete and misleading," said Rudi Desmet. “It’s not a green light. It’s an amber light, maybe. Basically, any team that wants to take him runs the risk of disciplinary sanctions.
"From an ethical point of view, if a team wants to contract a rider who has breached his contract, they are saying to their own riders: 'if you are not happy just invent a reason to breach you’re contract and you can walk away'. That would be devastating to the trust of sponsors to engage in long-term commitments."
The case reached the Belgian labour courts last month and is currently in the evidence-gathering phase, with a resolution not expected until October or November next year. By that point, Van Aert could in theory have a full WorldTour road season under his belt, but he, his agent, and his new team could still be hit with a fine from the UCI if the Belgian courts rule in favour of Sniper.
The UCI regulations state that a team or its paying agent that “approaches or engages, albeit conditionally, a rider from a UCI WorldTeam or another UCI Professional Continental team without the prior agreement of the current paying agent” will be subject to a fine. If this is a WorldTour team, the fine ranges from CHF 30,000 to 500,000, while if it’s a Professional Continental team the fine ranges from CHF 30,000 to 300,000. The regulations also state that ‘individual licence-holders involved in such practices' are liable to a fine anywhere from CHF 3,000 to 50,000 if the rider is signing for a WorldTour team, and up to CHF 30,000 if it’s a Pro Conti team.
On top of that, the new team would also have to pay compensation to the old team "equivalent to the amount of the remuneration for the period of the contract with the current paying agent remaining to run, but no less than six months' salary".
Van Aert’s representatives, however, dismissed the threat of disciplinary proceedings from the UCI.
"The decision is very clear. At the end of the letter they mentioned they would follow the case, and that if we were giving false elements then they could eventually review the case, but there’s no concrete point that would give us any fear concerning that decision. It’s a classic expression," Steenbrugge told Cyclingnews. "The decision was very clear and does not give one per cent of doubt concerning the future of Wout Van Aert."
Steenbrugge is convinced Van Aert was treated unacceptably by the Veranda’s Willems-Crelan team, though he has not publicly revealed details of the specific incident that led the rider to terminate his contract. Sniper’s lawyers insist there was no wrongdoing and claim Van Aert doesn’t have evidence to back up his allegations.
"From the beginning, his lawyer said ‘we have proof’, so I requested they show this proof in writing. Until now, we have not seen the proof," said Desmet. "They say in the newspapers that they have proof so why have they not shown me that proof? I must assume there is no proof."