D-day for ProTour hopefuls

Neil Stephens hopes for best for two teams

By Shane Stokes

Both Manolo Saiz's Active Bay team and the Swiss-registered squad managed by Marc Biver, featuring riders such as Alexander Vinokourov, have a crucial appeal with the UCI license commission today, Thursday, in order to see if they can secure a ProTour license for next season.

Biver's Astana squad was last week refused a license, while there have also been reports that Saiz was unable to provide the financial guarantees necessary in order to hold onto his own one. One serious complication is that both teams have cited the Astana conglomeration of Kazakh countries as their main sponsor.

Today's appeal meeting is therefore crucial to their hopes.

Earlier this year, Saiz was forced to step away from the team due to his implication in Operación Puerto, but insists his contracts with Astana and many of the riders remain valid. However, Biver maintains that the team's non-participation in the Tour de France means that they have no obligations towards Saiz, making a legal battle a real possibility.

Former Australian pro and Tour de France stage winner Neil Stephens has worked with both groups, spending a lot of time with Saiz as a director sportif with the Liberty Seguros team and then being part of the new setup which helped Alexander Vinokourov win the Vuelta a España in September. He doesn't know how things will work out and refrains from taking sides, but says that he is saddened that things have become so complicated.

"I've had contact with other directors [on the team], although not with Manolo himself, and we don't really know a lot," he stated while talking to Cyclingnews in recent days. "We are hearing that Manolo is going to go on, we are hearing also that the sponsor that he presented for 2007 was Astana. We also heard that Astana are not interested. I hope it is not the situation, but unfortunately it looks like it is going to end up in a legal battle, which would be a real shame.

"If there was any possible way that two teams could happen, then that would be great... Manolo's team and the new Swiss team. That would be fantastic, everyone would have their jobs. But if Manolo presents Astana as his sponsor and they are determined instead to go off and setup their own team, then there could be a legal battle... In that case, who is going to be right and who is going to be wrong?

"The bad thing is that I think a lot of times people lose sight of something... When they say that this person should do this and that person should do that, they forget that they are talking about families. The masseurs, bike riders and mechanics are all involved and, at the end of the day, all they are trying to do is feed their own families."

Biver has said that his team will not appeal should the UCI stick to their original ruling. The team will instead take out a professional continental license, relying on wildcard invites to get into the biggest races.

That is of course dependant on what happens with a possible court case. If Saiz wins, he will have control of the budget and could compel riders such as Vinokourov to race for his squad. However if he is unable to prove the sponsorship contract is valid, it remains to be seen if he has the necessary funding to even run a team in 2007. He also faces the second hurdle of having to clear his name in the ongoing judicial case relating to Operación Puerto.

Last week two teams successfully went forward for final consideration, namely Unibet.com and Barloworld. Astana is hoping that the appeal will once again make this a three-way fight. The ProTour license vacated by Phonak is up for grabs, although if Saiz ends up losing his due to the financial issues, that would effectively free up a second slot.

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