News feature, November 25, 2006
Saiz licence depends on financial guarantees
With a decision due soon on which teams will be awarded ProTour licences in 2007, three squads are each hoping that they have done enough to secure the final place which is definitely up for grabs. Astana, Unibet.com and Barloworld have each applied for a licence and now have a nervous wait in order to see which one will be given the green light. Shane Stokes reports.
Cyclingnews spoke to UCI ProTour manager Alain Rumpf this week about the process and he clarified the state of affairs. "In accordance with our regulations, the teams had to finalise their financial file by November the 20th," he said. "Now it is up to the ProTour Council to make a decision based on this, something which will be done within a few days.
"One of the conditions to get or keep a license is to have the financial file in order. In the case that there is any problem, the information will then be transferred to the License Commission, who will act."
Rumpf gave a clear timetable as regards the various stages before the final announcement. “The license commission meets on November 28 to issue preliminary opinion on the definitive grant of licenses,” he stated. “Teams whose preliminary opinion is negative can be heard at the December 7 meeting and the commission will then make a final decision. The UCI will communicate [the result] after these decisions have been made.”
In all, three licences are up for renewal, while one is yet to be confirmed. T-Mobile and Caisse d'Epargne have already been granted a provisional licence and, according to Rumpf, they will be cleared to join the ProTour once again if their financial file is in order.
The third licence is that of the former Phonak team, which was originally planning to continue through 2007 and onwards via the backing of the iShares sponsor. However the positive test returned by Tour de France winner Floyd Landis led to the collapse of that arrangement and, with no replacement backer found, owner Andy Rihs was reluctantly forced to abandon hope of a new team.
It is this place that is now up for grabs. "The new Astana team - the one based in Switzerland - plus Team Barloworld and Unibet.com are going for the empty slot," confirmed Rumpf on Tuesday.
Both Unibet.com [formerly MrBookmaker] and Barloworld have applied in the past for ProTour licences but lost out to other teams. It was reported by various media outlets earlier this year that the former was a cert to get the final ProTour licence; indeed, team manager Hilaire Van der Schueren certainly sounded confident about the team's chances last month.
"We have met all three of the UCI's conditions, so the chance that we will get a license is 100%," he was quoted on Sporza.be. "We even received a written confirmation from the UCI that we will get the license".
When asked if the reports were correct, Rumpf said that this was not necessarily the case. "Confirmation [in the media of a ProTour contract] was a little bit premature, because unlike Caisse d'Epargne and T-Mobile, they did not get a provisional license," he clarified. "So there was no formal decision in favour of Unibet.com. There may have been correspondence between the license commission and them which led the team to the conclusion that they will get the license, but there is no formal decision as yet."
Unibet.com has been pushing hard for a place and has stated that it will have a strong anti-doping policy in force - something which will sit well with the ethical requirements of a ProTour licence - but, like Barloworld, it is missing a major name. Riders such as Baden Cooke and Barloworld's new signing Robert Hunter have shown strong form in the past but both teams will know that their candidature would be stronger if a Grand Tour contender was amongst their ranks.
Barloworld were recently in talks with 2006 Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso in order to fill this gap. However even if he had opted for them rather than Discovery Channel, it is uncertain whether this would have been regarded as a licence-securing acquisition in the eyes of the relevant commission. After all, the UCI initiated a investigation into the Italian earlier this year due to his implication in the Operaciòn Puerto affair. While the Italian federation have shelved their disciplinary proceedings, the UCI has said that it may pursue the matter further once the judicial case has finished in Spain.
The third team, Astana, came about as a result of the same Puerto affair. Although he was not himself implicated in the matter, Alexandre Vinokourov saw his Tour de France prospects take a nosedive when primary sponsor Liberty Seguros pulled out of the sport in the wake of Manolo Saiz's arrest back in May. His links with Kazakhstan's Prime Minster Danial Akhmetov led to the squad's backing by a consortium of five big companies and, while the team ultimately did not get to start the Tour de France, Vinokourov bounced back by winning the Vuelta España in September.
A curious grey area exists whereby several of the riders - Vino included - are reportedly still contracted to Active Bay, the holding company formerly run by Saiz. One of the side-effects of the Puerto turmoil was the effective splitting of the team, with Vinokourov, Andrey Kashechkin, new arrival Andreas Klöden and others all opting to go with the new Astana backers and hope that they are granted a ProTour licence. However, even if they are not, Vinokourov has said that he is confident that race organisers will grant wildcards to the squad.
This was reiterated by team manager Marc Biver when speaking about the planned anti-doping measures at the end of October.
"A ProTour license is really just a question of prestige," he told www.radsport-aktiv.de. "I think that Astana would be invited to most races even if it just has a Continental license. The reality is that the grand tours don't belong to the ProTour, and I have close contacts with the ASO..."
As for Saiz, he is stubbornly pressing on with his plans to retain his ProTour licence and continue with new backers in 2007. Although he remains under suspicion in the Spanish investigation - with reports at the time of the Operaciòn Puerto bust stating that he was found with doping products and a large sum of money in his possession - the UCI said in October that it would, somewhat reluctantly, allow the Active Bay licence to continue pending the examination of the financial file.
The full wording of the press release did, however, show the governing body's dissatisfaction with the situation:
Rumpf reiterated this point on Tuesday. "He [Manolo Saiz] retained his license after the procedure that was opened by the License commission with regard to the Operaciòn Puerto case. However, in the same UCI press release, it was mentioned that the next step for him - or rather Active Bay - would be the financial side."
Running a ProTour team clearly requires considerable funding and so Saiz' big battle has been in chasing the necessary backing. Recent rumours linked his ProTour licence to new team owner Oleg Tinkoff but earlier this week, the Russian denied that any such talks had taken place.
It seems that there are two possible conclusions to this matter. The first is that Saiz has a mystery backer secured, which will ensure that Active Bay have a place in the peloton next season. The second is that through a lack of financial guarantees, the attempt to hold onto the ProTour licence falls at the final hurdle. If this is the case, it could open up a second slot for the three teams who are fighting it out for a place in cycling's top division.
So, Unibet.com, Barloworld or Astana? Time is ticking, and the answer to this question will soon be known.
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