The Italian cycling federation held a tribunal to assess the claims of “pay to race” amid claims riders were hired not for their talent but their ability to bring a sponsor or cash. “Big deal” you might think, “this is the sort of thing that’s always happened“. Yes and no.
The case is in the hands of the UCI now and the fate of professional cycling in Italy hangs in the balance. It probably won’t blow up but the case and the issues highlighted by it matter.
Italy’s a great cycling nation with the Giro, two monument classics and the second largest cohort of pro cyclists after France. Only in 2017 it will no longer have a team in the World Tour, a first. Now three of its four Pro Continental teams are at risk. The managers of all these teams have been cleared in a tribunal held by the Italian federation but the UCI has now requested the documents and it’s possible their licences are on the line. It unlikely to this but the mere chance of this means it’s a weighty issue.
Riders bringing sponsors is neither illegal nor unusual. It helps explain why many of the Italian pro continental teams sport jerseys are loaded with logos, the textile equivalent of Times Square or Shinjuku. A rider may bring, say, an olive oil sponsor with them or perhaps a clothing supplier and some cash. It’s not just the smaller outfits, look at Peter Sagan’s switch to Bora-Hansgrohe: without him there’s no Specialized and their money. So far so normal. If a rider brings a sponsor and cash then where does the money go? If it’s into a communal pot to help keep the team on the road then this is understandable and almost sensible. If it’s into the team manager’s back pocket then it’s outrageous if they collect fees or backhanders to sign riders.
The UCI rules have several relevant regulations:
- 2.16.003 says “Any contract relating to the income for the professional continental team must be signed directly with the party actually responsible for paying this income” which implies no middlemen
- 2.16.008 stipulates accounts have to be kept so either dodgy dealings appeal in the ledger or they’re kept off the books which is going to fall foul of the UCI if they’re flushed out
- 2.16.013a insists on transparency for ethical, legal, contractual and admin matters
- 2.16.014 says copies of rider contracts have to be sent to the UCI for review
There’s more detail in the rulebook, the summary take is that the team must have accounts and most rider employment contracts have to be sent to the UCI.
Which brings us to the case of Marco Coledan. His story emerged in the hearings and has been relayed via Italian journalist Marco Bonarrigo of Corriere Della Sera. Coledan’s long been a member of the Italian team pursuit squad and his track speed makes him an ideal lead-out rider. Back in 2013 Elia Viviani wanted him at Liquigas for the following season, Coledan wanted to move and his two year contract with Bardiani-CSF team was up. Only Coledan it appears had signed an option for a third year in what cyclingnews.com’s Stephen Farrand calls a “private agreement” and La Repubblica’s Eugenio Capodacqua goes further saying Coledan signed two contracts where “only one is deposited with the sporting authorities, the second is held back to tie the athlete”, adding the word ricattato which translates as blackmailed, extorted or held to ransom.
Coledan was going to go along and buy his way out of a third year, with Viviani reportedly contributing cash in order to get his lead out train in place, only for the price of breaking the side contract to double. As Farrand puts it Bardiani-CSF team boss “Reverberi defended his actions but indirectly confirmed the accusations. “They (the Liquigas management) should have dealt with me instead of sending the rider,” he said according to the La Repubblica newspaper.”
Will the UCI do anything? A rhetorical question perhaps but if contracts have been withheld and significant flows of money have not been documented then this is a clear breach of the rules that underpin a team’s licence and will require some explaining. Proving this won’t be easy.
There’s the sense that the tribunal aired some of Italy’s dirty laundry but anecdotally this happens in plenty of other places too. The lower end of the Pro Continental scene marks the nexus between professionalism and amateurism and it as the CIRC report (PDF) noted it happens in women’s racing too, the CIRC “was given examples where riders in the sport had been exploited financially and even allegedly sexually”.
How to bring all of this into the open? Some sort of educational programme to tell budding riders that signing side deals isn’t allowed doesn’t sound like much but it’s a start to signal this kind of thing isn’t normal. Agents can play a role but that’s not easy, some stand to profit from contractual complexities, break fees and more and can navigate this complexity better than busy athletes. The rider’s union can play a role but it’s still a weak body. The UCI could act on this but will it want to pull the rug out from under the Italian pro cycling scene. There could even be a kind of “CIRC report” where confidential hearings are held but this is sounds fanciful. None of this resolves the fundamental issue that some teams have weak finances that appear to depend, in part, on the provision of sponsorship by athletes.
At first sight bringing a sponsor to a team sounds fine, what’s so scandalous? It might even help keep rest of the team afloat. This seems to be a common reaction when learning of the “pay to race” case, many people shrug and say it’s reasonable. Only there’s more to it.
For starters if this becomes habitual then riders with wealthy backers turn pro at the expense of more talented riders who don’t have rich parents or wealthy networks. Right now there are some good riders still searching for a job, have spaces been taken by more mediocre riders who have funding behind them? Maybe and some would just say that’s how pro sport works. But if this is entrenched then team managers are sawing the branch on which they sit. In theory if they took the best talent then this would deliver results which in turn attracts sponsors, reversing the downward spiral. Until then a promising Italian rider may just go abroad, see Gianni Moscon to Team Sky and others have done the same.
Most of all it’s the more furtive aspect of side deals with talk of blackmail and riders being subject to various forms of racketeering. Coledan’s case is one that’s seen the light but there are many more in Italy and beyond.