Gazprom-Rusvelo To Ride Giro d’Italia

What was it about the team sponsored by a $40 billion company that attracted RCS to give Gazprom-Rusvelo a wildcard for the Giro? You probably can’t name a rider on the Russian team and if you could you’d know they’re not exactly “must have” riders that the Giro needs to send ratings soaring. So the invitation is a surprise. It’s probably down to money but the real concern is collusion between this team and Katusha as both share the same DNA.

Scan Rusvelo’s results in recent years and there’s little to suggest they’ll do much in May. Thanks to Ivan Savitsky they won a single HC-rated race last year, a stage of the Tour of Quinghai Lake. Identical in 2014, only with comeback-kid Timofey Kritskiy instead. Otherwise the team specialise in riding Russian races and tend to win many, if not most of the domestic UCI races such as the GP Sochi stage race and one day events like Krasnodar-Anapa. Since then there haven’t been any big transfers, they managed to reel in the promising Alexey Rybalkin who was a good U23 rider last year but still too raw for the Giro.

We can’t see this as a way to develop the Giro in Russia either, a means to crack a new market. There’s already Katusha and Tinkoff for that, they bring heightened Russia media interest and the best Russian riders, there’s no need for third team.

Of course Nippo-Vini Fantini aren’t a must have team either but they’re Italian and this matters. Races remain parochial, global events that need locals. People will come to see the village champion ride past. Italian cycling is down to Lampre-Merida, although Astana has an Italian cell within in it. It’s why Direct Energie are certain wildcard pick for the Tour de France and Caja Rural get a Vuelta a España invitación. Note the Dutch start to the race, Roompot got overlooked too although their sporting record isn’t compelling either. We should note Gazprom-Rusvelo have some Italian links: Ernesto Colnago, Valentino Campagnolo and Italian cycling boss Renato di Rocco all attended the team launch last December and the team has a base in Italy.

As well as the invitation there’s the exclusion. Last year the wildcards struggled, Nicola Boem won for Bardiani-CSF after the team started under a cloud following the low cortisol levels of a rider and eventually quitting the MPCC; meanwhile the other wildcards didn’t win anything but at least they tried by getting in breakaways. But if they weren’t good enough then then the answer is to invite a stronger team like Bora-Argon 18, Cofidis or Caja Rural, not a weaker one. Androni-Sidermec are the big losers here, even if their roster looks past its sell by date it’s still molto Italian. Gianni Savio’s team have the dubious privilege of being suspended by the UCI last summer, the first collective suspension ever imposed under the new rules. Did this cost them? Probably not because RCS can’t play the clean card while inviting Southeast who have had EPO positives for Di Luca, Santambrogio, Carretero and Rabbotini of late. Rusvelo were the first team to self-suspend under the MPCC rules.

Of course it’s possible Gazprom-Rusvelo ride thanks to a fistful of Euros. The going rate for a Giro wildcard could be a few hundred thousand Euros, something that’d be strenuously denied in public but there’s more than a hint of Captain Renault here. Not that anyone’s trousering envelopes of cash, instead it’s all above board and part of a business model. Look around at an RCS race and you’ll see:

  • Cofidis sponsoring Milan-Sanremo where they get a wildcard
  • Sprandi sponsoring the Strade Bianche race and CCC-Sprandi gets a wildcard
  • Novo Nordisk sponsoring Milan Sanremo and, yes, Team Novo Nordisk has wildcard too

It would not be a surprise to see Gazprom or Colnago sponsoring the Giro with banners or perhaps a jersey in the race. Hopefully none of this is shocking, just a reminder of the commercial motor beneath the sport’s bonnet.

If you’re really into your Kremlinology then you’ll notice here’s a team linked to UCI Management Committee member Igor Makarov that’s close to RCS and you could view this in the light of the spat with ASO and how the UCI, RCS and Velon are all riding in the same echelon. This is probably a step too far.

However the connection to Igor Makarov does matter, he’s the man behind the Gazprom-Rusvelo team. Here’s the team website:

“The Castle of Desanzano was the venue of the team launch for Gazprom-RusVelo professional cycling team this weekend. The team is the brainchild of Russian cycling federation president Igor Makarov who has been giving it all the necessary support over a period of four years. The arrival of the new title sponsor in 2016 was announced at the beginning of the ceremony, giving the team the new official name of Gazprom-RusVelo”
Gazprom-Rusvelo team website, 29 November 2015

The Russian oligarch owns the Katusha team too. There is a rule that prohibits connected teams from racing together in order to prevent a conflict of interest. Here it is:

2.2.001 Riders belonging to teams with the same paying agent or main partner may not compete in the same race except in the case of an individual event. Furthermore, no more than one national team of each nationality may compete in an event. In addition, the participation of both a UCI WorldTeam and the development team supported by this same UCI WorldTeam in accordance with article 2.15.130 is prohibited

The UCI publishes a PDF but has yet to upload the 2016 version. Either way Katusha and Gazprom-Rusvelo do not share the same main partner (ie sponsor) nor the same paying agent, jargon for the person or legal entity behind the team. However as Makarov’s presence at the team launch makes clear, both teams share one ultimate boss, perhaps in spiritual than legal terms but it’s clear who the chief is. Indeed the closeness is seen in other ways, they have their service course warehouses in neighbouring towns next to Lake Garda in Italy. So perhaps the scope of the rules misses it but Gazprom-Rusvelo’s presence in the Giro alongside Katusha poses a potential conflict of interest as Gazprom-Rusvelo riders have an implicit incentive to help Katusha and Ilnur Zakarin’s GC tilt. This is unlikely to be resolved in a hurry given Makarov sits on the UCI’s Management Committee.

Perhaps we won’t miss Androni but Gazprom-Rusvelo’s invitation to the Giro is a surprise. Let’s wish them well, they’ll be expected to enliven the stages with early attacks, indeed finishing could be a challenge given few on the squad have done long stage races. They haven’t won much and neither do they represent a means to crack the Russian market given Katusha and Tinkoff are already mighty Russian teams. It could be money instead with Gazprom or Colnago deciding to sponsor the Giro d’Italia. This shouldn’t be a surprise given the precedent but if it happens it’s obvious.

But whether Gazprom-Rusvelo thrive or if they’ve “paid to play” is speculation. What’s real is the potential for a sporting conflict of interest with two closely-linked teams sharing the same central figure which brings concern about tactical collusion. The scope of the UCI rules doesn’t cover this and perhaps they should.

63 thoughts on “Gazprom-Rusvelo To Ride Giro d’Italia”

  1. I find it hard to get too agitated about any of this. If anything, maybe seeing brief glimpses of a few different riders in the Giro is a good thing. I’m not down with the idea that you get an invite because you come from the same country. Not that arbitrary picks based on commerce is any better, of course.

    Best of all would be if sporting results determined who can enter. But then people would cheat even more to gain entry. Swings and roundabouts.

    PS Do we think Makarov got himself into the UCI so he could have no influence? I do hope not.

    • They’re already cheating plenty:

      Rusvelo had 4 positives in 2013 and 1 last year
      Southeast–Venezuela had two riders lose results at the 2013 Giro for EPO, another EPO positive in 2014, and one more last year for good luck.

      Consistent with their ongoing veneration of Pantani, it looks like RCS don’t give a toss.

      • I get the impression some Italians, or maybe just Italians, think cheating is a part of the game. Russians, perhaps, share this mentality.

          • There do seem to be some differences in national responses to doping scandals.

            While athletes are under the same pressures to cheat wherever they come from, and differences seem to relate more to individual approaches than national ones, the fans do seem to respond differently: North European/US/Antipodean fans seem more outraged by the notion of doping, but in denial when one of their favourites is implicated. They then over-react, refusing to believe that anybody in the sport is clean (viz US fans post-Lance, German TV post-Telekom, etc). Whereas southern European fans do seem more forgiving of individual failings, considering them to be more part of the game.

          • If it was to be done by nations, a proper comparison should involve Belgium, which isn’t at all a “southern European” country as long as I know (and how should we consider France?).
            I suspect that the difference is more about the existence of long-term interest in the sport, which ends up implying sort of a better knowledge about how things do really work.
            I’ve observed the same sort of dichotomy described by Nick within a same country… Italy: but you can notice quite easily that it corresponds, more or less, to the difference between hard core fans and newbies or generalist fans.
            Hence I tend to believe that the decisive variable is the level of knowledge and perhaps personal involvement (more or less direct) with the pro sport than nationality. What I mean with “personal involvement” is that in some parts of Italy you always end up knowing someone who was a pro or worked in the pro world. And the funny thing is that maybe you end up knowing the people working with Australian or English riders because they spend a lot of time in Italy!
            Those factors can vary along with nationality when a whole country is more or less into the sport, or has got a rising number of sudden fans and so on.

    • No need to be too agitated by this, just aware of the issues.

      I know what you mean by the sporting criteria but all races need locals. Cycling has few genuine superstars to draw the public but people will come and cheer on a local hero.

    • +1 I wouldn’t get my chamois in a bunch over this, unless the guy who signed my paychecks was named Gianni Savio. RCS basically replaced Androni with Rusvelo – big deal. Contrary to what the likes of Velon would have us believe the Giro’s in deep financial trouble so if they need a few million euros from Rusvelo to survive at the expense of Savio’s low-rent, doping scandal plagued operation it’s fine by me. I can remember when it was said lots of Colnago and other frames + Campagnolo components were sent to the USSR in exchange for Soviet riders…Alfa-Lum was created along the way with Colnago getting in near the end.

  2. Colnago no longer with Europcar, NO TDF, had to act. went as Co Sponsor with Rusvelo , they paid few hundreds 100o to get in. him and Vegni know each other very well.

  3. Perhaps it isn’t Gazprom ‘buying’ a ticket for the Giro, but (also) the other way around. RCS getting a stake in GP Sochi and what else you’ve over there, with the support from Makarov in return for Rusvelo in the Giro? RCS wants to branch out, adding more races to their roster, and the Russian petro-dollar is as ‘good’ as the sheikhs’ dollar.

    • 15 Mar Sochi Cup RUS Europe Tour 1.2
      16 Mar Grand Prix of Sochi Mayor RUS Europe Tour 1.2
      17-20 Mar Grand Prix of Sochi RUS Europe Tour 2.2

      Hmmm. So, if your team makes the trip and the right category, then you can get a decent block of racing in.

      If there is more going on between RCS and Makarov than just paying for a slot at the Giro, I suspect it will be rather slow in reaching the public. Makarov certainly has the influence and money into the UCI. Another billionaire hobbyist.

  4. Am I sensing a nod to the famous Mrs Merton to Debbie McGee line in the opening sentence?! Chapeau.

    An extremely odd choice of Wild Card. Hope this doesn’t spell the end of Androni as the Giro exclusion did for Acque e Sapone.

    • What’s so good about Androni? What do they offer besides Rob Hatch quips on Eurosport about “Swiss Toni”? (And, seriously Rob, that line is old now.)

      • Of late, there hasn’t been much good about Androni. Last years suspension and a pretty anonymous (by their standards) Giro. They’d have been last on my list of the four Italian Pro-Conti’s to invite. Southeast were in because of the Azzurri classification and Bardiani have a more promising roster, including stage winners. Nippo-VF tick the boxes of broadening the appeal of the sport, leave the other Italian teams behind in terms of visible anti-doping efforts, promotion, use of social media etc.

        Androni do have a track record of developing some promising riders (e.g. Diego Rosa) and there are some more intriguing signings this year than of late. And I think that Savio (lame hatch references aside) does bring a bit of charisma to proceedings. Bernadeau aside, not sure I recognise any other Pro-Cont directors. So not saying that they deserve to be in the Giro but I think racing is more colourful for them being around.

  5. Italy is a big export market for Gazprom, which to me would be the most obvious reason for their interest. If the race gets a big sponsor in return, then it makes sense, right?

  6. At least with Roompot you could also make a sporting argument (as well as geographic), as in new hire Pieter Weening they have a rider who has won multiple grand tour stages and a World Tour stage race and has worn the Maglia rosa in the Giro. But that would be rational and therefore inimical to cycling in its current form.

  7. The politics and money links are to be expected but inviting such an openly dirty team is pathetic. Wonderboy Zakarin getting two teams behind him is hilarious

    • I don’t know about that – their branding was all over football’s UEFA Champions League for a while, three seasons from 2012 apparently though I can’t see a renewal. They also partner with a handful of teams, including Chelsea here in the UK. A cycling team is a peculiar switch, perhaps, but then all exposure helps I suppose.

  8. Just to add a little:
    When money is your aim that’s all you’ll end up with – everything else will suffer: quality, ethics, etc.
    They’ll no doubt barely feature – like CCC last year.
    Androni are not high on the ethics/quality scale either, but this makes the Giro look laughably easy to buy a place in.

    • Things might be even more complicated: RCS renounced to money *and* quality forcing Rebellin out. Was it about ethics or just grudge? However, money wasn’t given the priority and it didn’t work out very well, either.

  9. At least cycling doesn’t have to contend with riders being paid to lose…. oh wait we have Vino…

    To be honest i don’t see the big problems. The primary reason Colombia only got invited was under the banner of ‘globalisation’. RusVelo doesn’t quite fall under the same banner but it does more so than Tinkoff does. Probably also taking some capitalisation on the successes of Zakarin last year.
    And yes i have zero doubts there are non-sporting factors at work as Inrng pointed out with ties to the UCI (plus money was definately paid to the ‘struggling’ RCS).

    But barely any wildcards for WT races are given purely on sporting terms. The Vuelta doesn’t, the Tour doesn’t. No races give all their wildcards on a sporting basis at all, the current TDU might even be the worst at this aspect!
    As far as i’m concerned it’s a non-issue.

  10. Let’s hope their riders are too hopeless to help Katusha riders.
    I’ll be hoping for an embarrassing failure to compete – the only thing that might teach all concerned a lesson.

  11. In other ‘What a brilliantly run sport’ news, good to see that the cycling colossus of Iran has a quota of three riders for the men’s Olympic road race, compared with the USA’s two.

    • Based on some pretty eyebrow raising results in the Asian Tour, don’t be too surprised if those 3 Iranians do fairly well. Many very good Australian riders who’ve gone on to become good WT pros have been humbled by the Iranian teams in the “wild East”. I leave it to your imagination as to why.

    • At least, Iran has got a decent cycling tradition (on an extra-European scale). Obviously enough, there are trouble with institutional tolerance towards doping… something inconceivable in Western countries, isn’t it? People on EPO weren’t being caught (for technical reasons, sure!) as late as 2012.

      Olympics are more about world representation than absolute quality, a bit like the Worlds when compared to Monuments.
      However, it’s worth noting that the USA could manage things to take profit of their own lower-quality Continental ranking, it they were interested in doing so. Truth is that USA cycling is suffering from the typical end of a bubble, which happens to be the case when you build up something bigger than your tradition allows you to do. Not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing – the bubble itself might be useful to start builiding sort of a tradition, if the related structures survive the setbacks – but consequences tend to follow.

      • If the cyclists are not actually any good, they’re only representing their nation at the start – they’re not actually in the race.
        But yes, the Olympics are just a sideshow.

      • Personally, I have no issue with smaller nations getting the chance to pull on their national kit, and represent their countries, even if some of them lose contact after the first few circuits (or less)

        • I tend to agree with you. As I said, it’s the way those events work, and part of the interest they’re able to rise – at least, for me.

    • The USA had an extraordinarily poor 2015 season, on both the WT and the Continental level. In every year from 2010 to 2014, they were in the top-15 of the WT (often in the top-10), and would have qualified 4 riders.

      The UCI’s qualification processes for Worlds and Olympics can rightly be questioned, but you can’t blame the international federation for the fact that the US boys simply didn’t score enough points.

      I do hope that from this year forward, the UCI will use the new, rolling 52-week unified ranking (including WT *and* Conti races) to calculate Worlds & Olympics qualification. It would be a big step in the right direction.

      • The USA and Iran were just two arbitrary examples. If you look at the rest of the list, there are many more that are patently ridiculous. Fair enough to have one, but why have three inferior riders from any country having no real involvement in the race at all? They’re representing their country in name only, whilst good riders are left out – I’d rather see the best riders; I don’t care where they’re from. And no-one in Iran will even see these guys ride – unless they show all seven hours of the race.

  12. Rusvelo, the closest I got to them was during the London Olympics when one of their team cars speed through a roundabout forcing me (on my bike) to take avoiding action, not impressed.

  13. Whicever way you shake it, whether its Gazprom buying the wildcard or RCS wanting a piece of the Sochi GP or whatever, its down to money. The team has next to no sporting credentials. Having said that Androni have been dodgy of late and havn’t had a major result for a while either. A run at the Giro would probably have overstretched Bora-Argon18, Caja Rural and Cofidis who already have one Grand Tour on the cards, though it seems harsh on Rompoot.

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