Katusha will debut at Tour de San Luis, but ethical questions remain

The team has burned through three general managers in four years and seen four riders test positive

MILAN (VN) — Russia’s top team, Katusha, has received a last-minute license so it can begin racing Monday in Argentina. The UCI registered it provisionally as a second-division team on Tuesday as it waits for a court to decide the team’s fate.

Katusha appeared pleased with the decision even if general manager Viatcheslav Ekimov originally said last month he would take nothing less than a first-division license.

The team’s season starts in Argentina at the Tour de San Luis, where Katusha will field a squad with star Joaquím Rodríguez. The provisional license ensures Katusha’s five-man can race and its some 80 employees are busy while the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, plans a hearing date.

CAS representatives were unavailable for comment. Earlier, they told VeloNews that they have yet to schedule a hearing date.

Rodríguez finished last season ranked number one after winning several races, among them the Flèche Wallonne and Lombardia classics. And like Ekimov, he appears to be backtracking. While Rodríguez said last month that he would leave the team if it failed to receive a WorldTour license, he is staying put for now.

An ethical question

Ethical issues surround Katusha eventually receiving an official second-division license. The UCI’s license commission did not renew Katusha’s first-division license on December 10 over ethical questions. In four years, the team saw four riders test positive for doping and many more linked in investigations. The third of three general managers in that time frame, Ekimov, is linked to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) case against Lance Armstrong and reportedly is rider-11 in the list of redacted names.

Gerard Vroomen, co-founder of the Cervélo bike company and team, questioned why the UCI would license Katusha.

“Does cycling really allow lower ethical standards at the lower levels?” Vroomen wrote in his blog last month. “There shouldn’t even be a reason to apply, it should be a guaranteed ‘no’ … if it was a ‘no’ on ethical grounds at the WorldTour level.

“What message is the sport sending? You can’t dope at the highest level, but knock yourselves out at the lower levels?”

In announcing Katusha’s approval as a second-division squad, the UCI said that the decision was taken because the team “had introduced anti-doping measures.”

The Movement for a Credible Cycling (MPCC) holds the key for second-division teams to race in WorldTour level races. The 18 first-division teams have a guaranteed right to race, but the 21 second-division teams must apply for the limited number of slots. The Association of Race Organizers (AIOCC), which includes nearly 115 races, agreed on November 30 to give priority to MPCC members when issuing invitations.

The MPCC currently includes 15 second-division teams, each of which must adhere to the movement’s stricter anti-doping rules.

Katusha has applied to join the MPCC. But will the movement allow a team with such questionable ethics in?

Movement president Roger Legeay was unavailable when called Tuesday, but earlier told VeloNews that he would be open to such teams.

“We can put a white line on the road, we don’t have to think about the story before,” Legeay said. “I want them to join and to apply these strong rules heading forward.”

Assuming everything is in place, the team will be able to race as a wildcard invitee in several big races thanks to Rodríguez’s hard work last year. In addition to winning Flèche and Lombardia, he also placed second in the overall Giro d’Italia and third in the Vuelta a España.

Rodríguez said he wants to race the Tour de France this year and maybe the Vuelta a España. It’s a good thing, because the Giro organizer overlooked the team when it issued invitations last week. The Tour organizer, Amaury Sports Organization (ASO), is likely to do the same, giving the nod to its French teams.

The uncertainty leaves Katusha hoping for a favorable CAS decision and Rodríguez looking for a new team. In the meantime, both have a green light to begin their seasons in the Tour de San Luis.