Following Gazprom-RusVelo's ban from competition in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, team boss Renat Khamidulin has confirmed that the team has had "interesting contacts" as they seek alternate sponsorship to fill what is a shortfall of €3.5-4 million in funding for the remainder of 2022.
The Russian last week set a deadline of March 27 to save the team, whether that comes through negotiation with the UCI or a new sponsor. Talks with the UCI – which have included offering to race in neutral jerseys with "a message of peace" have so far not progressed.
With Gazprom Germania, the team's lead sponsor, having already paid a portion of the 2022 sponsorship to the team in January, Khamidulin would not need to find an entire years' worth of money. He told Cyclingnews that the sum he is looking for in order to meet current contracts and keep the team going for the 2022 season comes close to €4 million.
"For this moment we can see that we have some interesting contacts already and with a real interest in this project," Khamidulin said about the search for a new sponsor. "But of course, we would prefer to have the signature on the document so we can say that it was a successful search."
The UCI confirmed to Cyclingnews that Gazprom-RusVelo would have to find a non-Russian sponsor and also change its country of registration – while the usual licensing criteria, such as financial viability, would also have to be met.
"At this stage, the paying agent of the team – PROvelo AG, which is based in Switzerland – has not presented an application that would meet the applicable requirements for registration as a UCI ProTeam," read the statement.
"The decision of the UCI Management Committee shall be applied strictly, meaning that teams shall not be registered under Russian or Belarusian nationality and shall not be entitled to have Russian or Belarusian sponsors.
"Nevertheless, any team which was concerned by the withdrawal of UCI status shall be entitled to apply for registration under another nationality, subject to compliance with applicable nationality rules for teams."
Cyclingnews also understands that the team would need to provide a new UCI bank guarantee, too.
Khamidulin and Gazprom-RusVelo, then, are forced to look elsewhere, despite his insistence that, neither the team's sponsor [the German subsidiary of Gazprom], its paying agent [Swiss], nor its base [near Lake Garda in Italy] is Russian.
"The company, the paying agent responsible for the team, is from Switzerland," he said. "I'm resident in Italy and the team service course based in Italy and it's also regulated by the Italian company. Our sponsor is a German company.
"I'm just stating these facts because these facts demonstrate that it was quite a strange decision."
Khamidulin noted that the jobs of around 100 people are at risk if the team is forced to fold for good. He added that, in 10 years of working at the team, he has never failed in his wage obligations to riders and staff, even during the COVID-19 pandemic which saw several other teams enforce pay cuts.
He told Cyclingnews that, facing the prospect of so many people losing their jobs, he was confused by the UCI's approach to his team's situation, with the governing not willing to discuss any compromise solutions, such as the neutral kits.
"They would not discuss it with us," he said. "We just received the decision from the UCI."
Khamidulin also questioned the UCI's citation of its regulation 1.1.089 in its new ad hoc rules (opens in new tab) concerning the ban on Russian and Belarusian teams and events. The regulation prohibits brands that 'might damage the image of the UCI or the sport of cycling' – such as tobacco, spirits, or pornographic products – from associating with a team or other license-holder.
In this case, the regulation was cited in response to Gazprom's status as a Russian majority state-owned company, though Khamidulin likened the company to TotalEnergies, sponsor of the French ProTeam.
"This article was referred to in the decision," he said. "My question is what is this product that damages the image of the cycling or UCI.
"If it's gas, for example, I don't know, but TotalEnergies is the same business of Gazprom. We don't really understand this point. We don't have an answer on this question."
Riders finding new teams 'next to impossible'
Khamidulin and Gazprom-RusVelo have a deadline in just over two weeks by which to the team, then. In the meantime, riders and staff are free to move elsewhere, according to the UCI's ad hoc rules.
Following the ban, in which the UCI originally stated that they would study "specific measures" to allow riders on Russian and Belarusian teams to register elsewhere mid-season, the UCI has confirmed that those measures are now in place.
"Licence-holders who are registered with a Russian or Belarusian UCI Team on 1 March 2022 shall be allowed to register with a UCI Team that is neither Russian nor Belarusian outside the registration periods set out in the UCI Regulations for the respective discipline," reads the rule, which also applies to fellow banned teams Vozrozhdenie, Minsk Cycling Club, CCN Factory Racing, and track team Marathon-Tula.
When asked about the worries of potentially losing key riders – such as climbers Ilnur Zakarin and José Manuel Díaz, sprinter Matteo Malucelli, and UAE Tour stage winner Mathias Vacek – mid-season due to the rule, Khamidulin replied that he was more worried about the livelihoods of his riders and staff.
"We are more worried that most part of the riders and staff will be left without any work," he said. "For example, there are some three riders who can join other teams and we will not, of course, make them stay in the team. We would let them go.
"But then we are speaking about the other number of riders who will be without the team. Maybe three riders are seeking a new contract with another team, but 18 riders remain without work.
"We have we agreed with everyone that until 27 of March we are as a team and we're all together."
The prospect of a full squad of riders and staff finding new teams in mid-March is a daunting one in a sport where teams are often full up by November.
Raimondo Scimone, agent for Cristian Scaroni, told Cyclingnews that, "having signed Pozzovivo [to Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert in mid-February], I know that the market is close to impossible."
Alex Carera, who represents six riders at the team via A&J All Sports – including Vacek – said similar to WielerFlits (opens in new tab) on Saturday.
"It's very difficult – for all riders, for that matter," he said. "99 per cent of teams are full. And if they're not full already they don't have the money to take on additional riders.
"If Renat manages to find a new sponsor before [March 27], my riders will stay with the team. We do that because we have great respect for Renat.
"For three of my riders there are possibilities, for others it's more difficult," he added. "Guys like [Andrea] Piccolo and Vacek don't have to worry right away because they're great talents. Several WorldTour and ProTeams have already contacted us in the past week for their services."
Khamidulin told Cyclingnews that he's hoping for a potential solution to come through at the start of next week, which – even more so than his March 27 deadline – would be a miraculous result given the task.
"We will do everything possible for it," he said, after giving Cyclingnews an impromptu video tour of the team's service course to show the cars and bikes laying idle.
"[We're] just ready for fighting – sports fighting. I think we did good work in training camps this year and we really changed the team for this season.
"At the start of the season, we took some good results with two victories and some top-five placings. I know if the team now find a new partner, a new sponsor, that it will be a successful season."
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.