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Riis downplays rumors as UCI, teams meet over WorldTour future

Reports of Bjarne Riis's return make waves as teams and the UCI huddle to create WorldTour road map for 2020

Reports of Bjarne Riis’s return to the peloton are greatly exaggerated. At least that’s what the 1996 Tour de France winner is saying.

French sports daily L’Equipe reported that Riis, the former boss of CSC-Saxo Bank that delivered Carlos Sastre to victory in the 2008 Tour de France, could buy Team Katusha’s WorldTour license.

“There is no need to talk about loose rumors,” Riis told TV2 Sport overnight. “The Katusha story is new to me.”

The latest rumors surrounding the uncertain future of Katusha-Alpecin comes as the UCI is huddling with major WorldTour power brokers to hammer out a deal about the future of cycling’s premier racing league.

Over the last few days, each WorldTour team has been meeting individually with cycling’s governing body to consider changing transfer dates on contracts – November 1 instead of January 1 – and to clarify the number of riders and teams for 2020.

The UCI is also considering expanding the WorldTour from 18 to 20 teams for 2020 as part of a larger makeover of the top league among professional teams. Top teams pressed for an expanded WorldTour format and more transparent rules ahead of a possible relegation/demotion format between WorldTour and second-tier teams based on season-long results-based points that could be shortly introduced.

Current French second-tier teams, Cofidis, which recently signed Italian sprinter ace Elia Viviani, and Niki Terpstra’s Team Total Direct Energie, could round out the two additional WorldTour spots. Other teams vying for promotion next season include Arkéa-Samsic, expected to confirm the arrival of Colombian star Nairo Quintana, and Israel Cycling Academy.

The expanded WorldTour would also limit the entry of the number of so-called “wild card” teams to major races, particularly the grand tours, from four to two.

Katusha seems to be nearing its end, however, adding another wrinkle to the latest round of musical chairs at the top of professional cycling.

Manager José Azevedo could not give any certainties about the team’s future last month during the Tour de France. Co-sponsor Alpecin has left and Canyon bicycles wants to put more of its weight behind rising star Mathieu van der Poel and his team Corendon-Circus, which already rides the German brand’s bikes.

The news would be a blow for those 10 riders still under contract. The team also includes American Ian Boswell and Ilnur Zakarin, who is signing with Team CCC.

The German-registered WorldTour team sits at the bottom of the win rankings with CCC, both counting five for 2019 so far. Zakarin delivered a stage win in the Giro d’Italia and Brit Alex Dowsett won the national time trial championship.

That hasn’t stopped media reports linking Riis to a possible take-over of the team. L’Equipe reported that the Russian oligarch Igor Makarov, the Russian billionaire petrol businessman who founded Katusha in 2009, is considering selling the team and its WorldTour license.

“Danish manager Bjarne Riis has never been so close to returning to the peloton in the four years after selling his CSC team to the Russian oligarch Oleg Tinkov,” reported L’Equipe. “He could return to Russia by buying the Katusha team. The 55-year-old could buy the Katusha team from another oligarch Igor Makarov, who has decided to sell his team.”

The French publication also reported that Riis might buy his way into Belgian super team Deceuninck-Quick Step by purchasing Patrick Lefevere’s shares. With either team, Bjarne Riis would want to bring along Danish star Jakob Fuglsang. Fuglsang won the Critérium du Dauphiné and began the Tour as a favorite this year before a crash forced him to abandon. He is out of contract this year after seven years with Team Astana.

The story is causing some waves in the peloton, however. Riis said that he had never heard of it and Deceuninck-Quick-Step boss Lefevere wrote in Twitter that it is just filling during a news lull.

“I’m very aware of the fact there is very few news in cycling today, but I have 20% of the shares in the @Deceuninck_qst team. How can I sell the team??? Stop nonsense @lequipe. Lack of respect for mister @zdenekbakala,” wrote Lefevere.

Lefevere has been busy in the last years searching for a new high-end sponsor to replace the financial input from owner Zdenek Bakala and its mostly local sponsors. It appears unlikely to insiders that Riis would bring in the big backers for Lefevere. Instead, more weight is given to a Makarov/Riis deal.