News feature, October 24, 2005
With the team setting for next year's ProTour line-up all but confirmed, the big question revolves around the final and twentieth ProTour spot. Once looking like a three-way tussle, it now seems only one team has done enough to enter cycling's major league. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes reports.
It was supposed to be a three-way scrap: Comunidad Valenciana, Sony Ericsson and Ag2r Prévoyance fighting it out for the right to join 19 other teams in the top rank ProTour in 2006. But, within the space of a few days, two of those squads fell by the wayside. The Spanish entry went first, Communidad Valenciana telling the UCI that it was voluntarily withdrawing its candidature. Then on Friday the 14th came the shock news that Giancarlo Ferretti's new super team, the expected Sony Ericsson-backed squad, would not get out of the starting blocks.
Talk of a six-year deal proved to be false, and so too speculation that the team's budget would be as high as 15 million Euro by 2008. Instead, Friday's news was all about how the Italian directeur sportif had been misled, the "agent" he was in negotiations with having no links to Sony Ericsson, with the company confirming the bad news the following day: "We have no intention to be involved in sponsoring such a team," read the company statement.
Ferretti, the former head honcho of teams such as Ariostea and Fassa Bortolo, was left in tears by the twist of events. Gilberto Simoni, Stuart O'Grady, Matt White, Salvatore Commesso, Cristian Moreni were left without contracts, meaning that they, as well as a large number of other riders and team personnel would all be looking elsewhere for their employment next year.
Up until that point, Ferretti would perhaps have been many people's favourite to take the ProTour slot. Fassa Bortolo had a superb season this year, taking a total of 43 wins. Twenty-five of these UCI-ranked victories fell to Milan-San Remo victor Alessandro Petacchi, but even if the Italian was leaving for the new Milram squad, enough proven winners remained within the ranks to assure them of some big victories in 2006. Especially so when you factored in new riders such as Simoni and O'Grady. But in the end, it was not to be.
As for Comunidad Valenciana, they disappeared from the running even though they too had a strong season. The Spanish squad had scooped 21 UCI wins in 2005, including three stages in the Vuelta. Two of its riders (Carlos Garcia Quesada and Ruben Plaza) were fifth and sixth overall there, and the squad had finished a full 54 minutes clear in the classification for best team. But despite all that, the team told the UCI earlier this month that it couldn't reach the necessary level to contend for a ProTour licence, presumably falling down in the crucial area of budget.
So that leaves Ag2r. In truth, if the French squad does go on to take the 20th ProTour slot, it will be seen by many as a fitting result. After all, Vincent Lavenu's team went through the long application process 12 months ago, but didn't get the nod then; the UCI licence commission opted to leave the final place clear on the grounds that the French team was not quite up to the level of the others.
It was a bitter pill for a squad which had taken two stages in the Tour de France. However, Ag2r had the misfortune of just having lost its two best riders, Jaan Kirsipuu - one of those Tour stage victors - and the former world champion Laurent Brochard, a proven attacker and a strong race contender on all but the hilliest terrain. Still, leaving that final place clear led to suggestions from some that the UCI's motivation was to preserve the balance between France, Spain and Italy with four ProTour teams each.
In the end, the place was filled; Phonak won a court appeal and became the twentieth team.
12 months on, Lavenu's candidature is far stronger as he goes after the slot vacated by Fassa Bortolo. The team has a rumoured budget of seven million Euro for 2005 plus some high-profile signings which would seem to guarantee it's competitiveness in the top echelon of cycling. Francisco Mancebo and Christophe Moreau placed fourth and 11th in this year's Tour; Mancebo then went on to finish in the same position in the Vuelta, and while he's not the most stylish of riders, he has the capabilities and palmares to show that he could be a contender for Tour honours.
Signing up these two names is a big plus for Lavenu. In addition, the team has also secured Iles Baléares pairing David Navas and Jose Luis Arrieta, plus John Gadret (Jartazi) and Carl Naibo (Jean Floc'h). Staying on from the 2005 squad are riders such as Jean Patrick Nazon, Tour stage winner in 2004, Aliaksandr Usav - who was narrowly beaten by George Hincapie in the ProTour GP Plouay in August - and Dauphiné Libéré stage victor Samuel Dumoulin. Their presence, together with that of the promising young riders on the team, suggest that Ag2r can become a strong factor in the ProTour peloton in the months and years ahead.
"We will have a very nice team next season, but we don't know what the decision of the UCI will be," Lavenu told Cyclingnews recently. "As far as we are concerned, we are very capable of being a ProTour squad and we think that the dimensions of the team deserve that. We will have riders who were fourth and eleventh in this year's Tour de France, who have won a stage of the ProTour this year [Samuel Dumoulin, stage 2 of the Dauphiné Libéré] and finished second in the GP Ouest France in Plouay. I believe it is a high-level team and we are worthy of a place in the ProTour."
Ag2r's chances are certainly looking far better following the withdrawal of Comunidad Valenciana and the collapse of the Sony Ericsson project. However, just to complicate things, another rival recently expressed an intention to challenge for a place. The Unibet.com team (currently known as MrBookmaker.com) stated in recent days that it was chasing riders such as Gilberto Simoni plus the Quesada brothers and, if it got them, would put in a bid.
Team director general Koen Terryn was confident about Unibet's chances. "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 played every card in justifying their candidature. "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."
Manager Hilaire Van der Schueren also got involved, playing the big-guns angle. "At the moment we are waiting for the signature of Simoni and the Quesada brothers to apply to the UCI," he stated in the Unibet press release last week. "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 there are two problems for the team. First off, Unibet.com were not the only ones interested in Simoni and, following rumours that Naturino and CSC had expressed an interest, Saunier Duval were confirmed as netting the Italian’s signature. The second hitch was Unibet's timing. When asked by Cyclingnews earlier this month if it was in the running, ProTour manager Alain Rumpf suggested that the team had missed the boat. "MrBookmaker.com [the 2004 name] is not a candidate," he stated.
"The deadline for lodging an application was the 31st of May and they did not do that." Rumpf confirmed that the only teams which had applied in time were Ag2r, Comunidad Valenciana and Ferretti's proposed Sony Ericsson squad.
So does that now mean that the French set-up is home and dry? Not quite, according to Rumpf. "I am not a specialist of the regulations but from what I understand, when there is one applicant that candidate must still show that their candidature is valid," he explained. "The license commission will not give that license automatically; they [the team] must still submit their application and meet the necessary requirements.
"It is up to the commission. I don't want to give the impression that Ag2r is going to get the license automatically. But equally I do not want to give the impression that there may only be 19 teams next year. It is up to the license commission, they can freely decide."
Under the timetable of the ProTour applications, Lavenu's team had to submit part of their final application last Thursday and has until the 20th of November to complete it. The UCI's licence commission - comprised of its president Pierre Zappelli, a judge at the Swiss federal courts, businessman Henri Hurter and Swiss Sports Commission president Hans Hoehener - will then meet on the 28th of November and make their decision. Should the team fail to be awarded a licence, a chance to appeal is then given, with the final outcome to be announced on the 12th of December. Ag2r will, of course, hope to have the go-ahead confirmed before then.
So what are their chances? Rumpf outlined the prerequisites for approval. "The evaluation will be based on the same criteria used for 2005," he said. "Sporting value, respect of the regulations/ethics and financial guarantees." Looking at each of these, the French team certainly offers a good line-up for 2006. It has also managed to steer clear of the scandals which have plagued other teams. So, providing their financial affairs are in order and the necessary budgets are in place, Ag2r would seem to have a very strong chance.
Lavenu will just hope that politics doesn't come into the equation. As Unibet's Koen Terryn pointed out, if Ag2r get the final licence, France would have five ProTour slots, as compared to Spain's four and Italy's three. Yet that is hardly Ag2r's fault; teams and sponsors from around the globe had the chance to apply for a place in cycling's top echelon, but for a variety of reasons there now seems to be just one candidate. That in itself raises an interesting question: the ProTour was said to be the future of the sport, guaranteeing increased exposure, publicity, sponsorship and driving money into cycling. Yet, one year on, there is a dearth of big companies fighting to get involved.
As Giancarlo Ferretti's demoralising experience proved, major corporations such as Sony Ericsson still remain to be convinced of the merits of the new structures. One can only hope that in future years, the benefits and opportunities and economic justification of being part of cycling's ProTour become more apparent to those with the big bucks.