The TJ Sport team - known as Lampre-Merida this season - faces a race against time to secure a WorldTour licence for 2017, with riders and staff worried that previously announced funding from a consortium of Chinese backers may not materialise before a December 15 deadline.
Several riders and their agents have confirmed to Cyclingnews that the team has cancelled a planned December training camp. It seems the team’s Colnago bikes are ready to be delivered but most are still at the Colnago headquarters near Milan, while the team's clothing is still to be created by Hong Kong-based Champion System, which played a role in the takeover of the Lampre team managed by Giuseppe Saronni and former Saunier Duval manager Mauro Gianetti.
The riders and staff of the TJ Sport team gathered for a first get together in Italy in early November but are now worried about the future. If the team does not secure WorldTour status their contracts are not valid. Some may find places in other teams but likely with a much lower salary. Some riders and many of the staff on the 70-person team would struggle to find a job for 2017.
Many of the riders on the team's 2017 roster remain under contract from the Lampre-Merida iteration, while TJ Sport re-signed Rui Costa, Diego Ulissi and Sacha Modolo. The team also added Ben Swift from Team Sky, Darwin Atapuma from BMC, Andrea Guardini from Astana, Vegard Stake Laengen from IAM Cycling and Marco Marcato from Wanty-Groupe Gobert.
On November 25 the UCI awarded 17 WorldTour licences to leading teams but said the TJ Sport team was still under review by the UCI Licence Commission. The TJ Sport team told Cyclingnews it had requested extra time to complete its application after a key person fell ill and sparked a delay in obtaining some documents from China. It added it was confident of soon completing its application.
However almost two weeks later it seems the final documents to secure WorldTour status are still missing, with a deadline of December 15 now looming. If Saronni and Gianetti fail to complete their registration the team could be forced to accept the lower Professional Continental status or fold completely.
Teams have to respect sporting, ethical, financial and administrative obligations to obtain a WorldTour licence but it is not clear which aspect the new team management is struggling with. As part of the licence process teams have to provide a substantial bank guarantee to cover any eventual default on payment of rider salaries.
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Last week the UCI announced a major deal with the Wanda Group in China to organise the Tour of Guangxi, with the race quickly bolted onto the end of the 2017 WorldTour calendar and plans for a women's race. The delays in the creation of the Chinese TJ Sport team are no doubt embarrassing for the UCI as it holds its two-day WorldTour seminar in Mallorca and tries to keep race organisers, teams and riders united after a long series of disputes.
Saronni and other members of the team did not reply to calls from Cyclingnews but rider agents have been assured that the missing paperwork will be finalised before the end of the week. Everyone involved is trying to stay optimistic but there are fears about the possible demise of the team.
When TJ Sport announced the takeover of the Lampre team, it said its goal was the "achievement of a high level of competitiveness in the Tour de France and the development of the Chinese cycling in view of the participation to the next Olympic Games." Now the team risks a race against time to avoid becoming the latest team to have failed to live up to promises, announcements and contracts signed with riders and other sponsors.