Coffee, croissant, L’Equipe. It’s such a pleasant routine during the cycling season but if Alexandr Vinokourov emerges from his Monaco apartment this morning in search of the newspapers he’s in for a scolding surprise. L’Equipe reports that the UCI has asked its Licence Commission to withdraw the Astana team’s licence and the UCI has confirmed this with a press release.
It’s a giant move, to ban any team is serious but to exclude the reigning Tour de France champion and a team that is a flag carrier for a large country is a bombshell.
You’ll remember the troubles Astana had last year. In order to get a licence for 2015 the UCI insisted Astana submit to an audit by Lausanne University (ISSUL) . Now the report has come back and here’s a selection of what the UCI has said today (my emphasis):
“After careful review of this extensive report, the UCI strongly believes that it contains compelling grounds to refer the matter to the Licence Commission (2) and request the Astana Pro Team licence be withdrawn.
The UCI considers that the ISSUL audit has, among other things, revealed a big difference between the policies and structures that the team presented to the Licence Commission in December and the reality on the ground.”
The UCI also cites some evidence from the Padova inquiry following its receipt of files from the Italian police. But we don’t get much more. For this we need to turn to French sports daily L’Equipe which broke the story before the UCI put out its statement. The article is in the print edition and behind a paywall for now, journalism costs money after all. I won’t parrot the whole piece here either. But in one sentence it’s saying the UCI, it believes, the ISSUL report contains enough grounds to suspend the team and even resist a Katusha-like appeal.
Let’s take a look at what this means. The ISSUL audit was supposed to be published by the UCI in “early February 2015” and the high stakes probably explain the delay. L’Equipe suggests its because the team’s management hasn’t taken enough steps to stop riders from being tempted to turn to doping and that it treated the audit as a formality rather than a fundamental probe.
The mechanics of a licence withdrawal are simple: the UCI asks its Licence Commission to take away the licence. The Licence Commission is an independent office staffed by a handful of Swiss bigwigs. Under the rules they issue licences but can also withdraw them in exceptional circumstances, if the original licence had erroneous information or the facts have since changed.
- The UCI submits its written request to the Licence Commission
- A hearing is called with the team given at least 10 days’ notice
- If the licence is withdrawn the team could stop racing, there’s no automatic granting of a second-tier Pro Conti licence
- Astana may appeal the verdict to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)
- Any CAS appeal will take time, possibly two months, and there is scope for Astana to make a separate fast-track appeal to win back its licence on a temporary basis in order to keep riding.
The Licence Commission could see Astana demoted to the second-tier UCI Professional Continental Status but if the ISSUL report is damning then this is unlikely, we’re not talking about an administrative or financial shortfall as happened to Europcar but a fundamental problem.
What would the riders do? Not much and here lies a problem, they could be stopped from doing their job while Astana’s management and the UCI tangle and wrangle. Many riders have a clause in their contract allowing them to leave if the team loses its licence but exercising this is not simple:
- Take Vincenzo Nibali who is earning millions, to break his contract would be to stop this moneyspinner and join a new team on a fire sale basis, especially as he’d want to take his entourage of riders, masseurs, mechanics and coach Paolo Slongo. Who has the room and money?
- Take Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev who isn’t earning millions. Most teams are already close to their 30 rider maximum and don’t have money for many more riders, so the likes of Kozhatayev and others could be unemployed
What would the management do? The team is Venn diagram with a circle of Kazakh sponsors rallying around the totemic Alexandr Vinokourov which overlaps with an Italian circle containing team manager ‘Beppe’ Martinelli and riders like Nibali, Fabio Aru, Andrea Guardini and so on. The theoretical solution would be a management clear out but the Kazakh sponsors can hardly get rid of Vinokourov. The team has changed managers over the years, you’ll remember – chuckle – they brought in Johan Bruyneel to help clean up after previous doping scandals and this was just one of several managerial switches. There could be a managerial clear-out but it’s hard to expect. Instead we’ll probably see money thrown at the lawyers with an appeal.
Cookson + L’Equipe: after the track worlds in Paris Brian Cookson visited L’Equipe for an interview with Gilles Simon who has the Astana scoop today. Coincidence? L’Equipe seems well-informed and hinting the UCI is sure enough of its case based on the ISSUL audit that it can strip Astana of its licence and resist any appeals.
The beginning of the end for Astana? L’Equipe reports the UCI is sure of its ground, that the ISSUL audit is potent enough to strip Astana of its licence. Note the finality, the audit is not a list of recommendations and improvements, instead it has moved the UCI to dismantle a whole team, taking the reigning Tour de France champion with it.
None of this is certain. For now the UCI has simply asked the Licence Commission to review the file, yet it’s hard to imagine the UCI going public like this unless it totally sure about the outcome. As kite-flying exercises go, this is like having a go in an electrical storm and using a steel wire.
Astana can race for now but if the Licence Commission agrees with the UCI then it’s only a matter of days until the team is pulled from racing. Then the lawyers get to work, there could be a temporary reinstatement allowing the team to race on pending an appeal, we’ll see. This is such a serious decision that the UCI surely has to be so confident in this decision that it can effectively pick a fight with team represented, funded and supported by a large country.