Tour de la Provence organisers have denied operating a pay-to-race scheme, despite insinuations from a team manager, and Bora-Hansgrohe being added to the start list after signing up as event sponsor.
On Monday, the manager of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux, Hilaire Van Der Schueren, was quoted in Belgian newspaper Nieuwsblad, claiming his team were scheduled to appear in the February race but were replaced by another team who’d made a 'financial proposal' that included paying for their hotels.
"If you have money, apparently anything is possible these days," Van Der Schueren said.
However, contacted by Cyclingnews, Provence organiser Pierre-Maurice Courtade denied any suggestion of profiteering and hit back at Van Der Schueren, claiming the Belgian manager himself had tried to buy his way into the race.
Correspondence seen by Cyclingnews shows a mix-up between the two parties, with Van Der Schueren asking why Wanty weren’t on the list of teams announced on January 10. He was told that since he didn’t reply to a November request for confirmation of participation and logistical information, their spot had been forfeited.
Since then, the Tour de la Provence has added another team to the 19 that were initially announced - Bora-Hansgrohe. At the same time, the logo of the German WorldTour team has appeared on the race’s promotional materials as a partner of the event.
Courtade acknowledged that the race had received money as part of a sponsorship deal, but insisted the team were invited to the race on separate, sporting grounds.
He explained that the event's budget had fallen due to the pandemic and that they only had enough for 19 teams, but the regional government later imposed a limit of 20 due to coronavirus restrictions. He was then inundated with requests from teams, all desperate for racing opportunities in an early-season calendar decimated by the pandemic.
"I had five WorldTour teams asking me if it was possible to come: Jumbo-Visma, Israel Start-Up Nation, Bora-Hansgrohe, EF-Nippo, Wanty. Hilaire wanted to pay to come - he wrote to me saying he would pay for the hotels. Jumbo-Visma and Israel also wanted to pay," Courtade told Cyclingnews.
"Bora-Hansgrohe, as a brand, said they wanted to become a partner of the race. Of course, they approached us so that the team could be present, but the decision to invite them was based on the quality of the squad. Other teams also share sponsors with us [Intermarché sponsors a jersey and the Provence tourism board also sponsors EF-Nippo] but we looked at who had the best riders.
"If Israel had put Chris Froome down, maybe it would have been different. Bora showed us their proposed squad and it had Felix Grossschartner and some other nice names. If their team had been weaker than Israel or Wanty or Jumbo, then we’d have refused the partnership - if it had been on the condition of participation."
Contacted by Cyclingnews, Bora-Hansgrohe team manager Ralph Denk initially claimed to have no knowledge of the partnership deal, saying he had no idea why the team’s logo was on the race website. He acknowledged they’d signed a participation contract - the terms of which remain confidential as per team policy - but denied any sponsorship deal.
However, he called back to say he’d spoken with his team's marketing division and that an 'activation package' had indeed been agreed. Like Courtade, he insisted it had nothing to do with the team's place on the start list. "We do not pay for entry," he insisted.
Courtade, meanwhile, suggested that other races take payments for invites, but insisted that was not the case here.
"We have never offered to sell places," he said. "If I wanted to make a lot of money, I wouldn’t invite St-Michel-Auber-93 and Xelliss-Roubaix-Métropole. I’d just take teams who wanted to pay. There are enough of them - it wasn’t just WorldTour teams; I had Continental teams offering to pay.
"If we really wanted, we could have 25 teams and I’d earn lots of money, but that’s not the way we do things. For me, it’s not a question of money - it’s about the safety of the riders. The coronavirus situation is very bad here and I’m not going to play with government guidelines. The riders will go on to Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico and I do not want a cluster at my race."
Even if both parties deny any wrongdoing, the incident has raised wider concerns over the idea of teams paying for entry into certain races. The UCI even contacted the Tour de la Provence after reading Van Der Shuren’s words in Nieuwsblad.
Teams receive a participation fee themselves at certain races, but the Tour de la Provence has highlighted that, in the current climate, teams - even at lower levels - are willing to take a financial hit to avoid the arguably greater damage of not racing at all.
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