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Analysis: Will the UCI throw the book at Astana? And will it matter?

In all reality, a downgrade to Pro Continental would be a toothless formality, but it may be the only option the UCI has at this point

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In a few short days — or, perhaps, hours — the UCI will render a decision on the fate of Astana’s UCI WorldTour license for 2015. The run-up to the UCI’s verdict has been anything but definitive.

Initially it seemed likely that Astana would be warned, but granted a license for 2015. That was the precedent set when Katusha appealed the decision of the UCI’s license committee, two years ago, after the team was snubbed over “ethical reasons.” The Court of Arbitration for Sport [CAS] ultimately rejected the UCI’s decision, and Katusha was granted its license.

That early prognostication has morphed into questions about granting Astana licensure for the coming racing season. Whatever punitive measures the UCI intends to direct at Astana, Vincenzo Nibali’s season hangs in the balance.

Or does it?

What’s not up for debate is the complexity of circumstances and the unenviable position of cycling’s governing body. Astana’s track record makes them a very unsympathetic organization, and one that may well serve as an example of the new UCI culture under president Brian Cookson, should the UCI seek to send a strong message. The Kazakh-sponsored organization has produced five positive doping results under its umbrella organization in just over a month, including two within its WorldTour team, and one from Nibali’s Tour-winning squad.

Allegations surfaced on Monday that none other than banned doctor Michele Ferrari was seen keeping company with Astana at a November 2013 training camp. These recent developments, taken together with the past actions of the team’s riders, and of general manager Alexander Vinokourov, might present a compelling opportunity to the UCI.

At the WorldTour level, the sport is still reeling from the systematic doping cultures that have existed within teams and organizations, which came to light as part of USADA’s Reasoned Decision. Without looking too deeply, Astana certainly has difficulty passing the “looks-like, quacks-like” test. Taken separately, the doping cases of the Iglinsky brothers and Astana’s Continental team are damning enough. Add those to Roman Kreuziger’s abnormal biological passport values during his time at Astana, Vinokourov’s past doping positive, as well as the wider whispers about bribery during his career, and Astana’s perceived complicity, and this seems like an open-and-shut case for the UCI’s WorldTour license committee.

If proven true, the Ferrari allegations could represent the proverbial nail in Astana’s coffin, as the shadowy Italian doctor has come to be the embodiment of cycling’s doping past. This is not the first time Ferrari’s name has been mentioned in connection with Astana riders, or even in conjunction with Nibali. Vinokourov admitted to working with Ferrari in 2007, just prior to the Tour de France; weeks later, he tested positive for a homologous blood transfusion. Astana rider Michele Scarponi served a brief suspension for a link to Ferrari, Kreuziger admitted to working with Ferrari in 2006 and 2007, and Nibali faced accusations that he worked with Ferrari, although those were later dismissed in 2011 court proceedings.

One of the elements that makes throwing the book at Astana so compelling is that the sport has at last appeared to be turning a corner in the court of public opinion.

The UCI must then see this situation with Astana as one that is particularly vexing, and perhaps sees an opportunity to send a clear message about its lack of tolerance of the “old way of doing things,” by cutting the organization off at the knees. But herein lies the quandary: Nibali’s 2014 Tour victory in an Astana kit was perhaps one of the most convincing in recent memory because he never appeared super human.

Nibali’s track record since he began racing in grand tours has given no cause for suspicion about his palmares to date. The 2009 allegations about his involvement with Ferrari never really found traction. His seemingly flawless strategy during the 2014 Tour de France, and his persistent attacking style, have been a trademark of his career, which has seen slow, steady progress. Nibali raced within himself in July, and found himself positioned well on the stage that mattered most.

Recent reports in La Gazzetta dello Sport, which has access to the four-year, 550-page Padua investigation recently turned over to the Italian Olympic Committee, claim that Nibali’s trainer, Paolo Slongo, has had “frequent contact” with Ferrari — these are indeed troubling, though the Padua investigation also, reportedly, fails to provide any clear, definitive links between Nibali and Ferrari. So the lack of any culpability for Astana’s current situation, as far as Nibali is concerned, make him, in some ways, a poorly chosen sacrificial lamb.

So what does the UCI do, then?

If UCI were to take no action, it would open the door wide to questioning Cookson’s commitment to real progress in the sport’s anti-doping fight. That leaves a few options on the table, including fines and downgrading of the Astana team license to Pro Continental. A license downgrade would result in Astana having to ask for wildcard entry into some races, as opposed to the carte blanche status that the WorldTour license grants them.

However, with the current Tour champion and one of the sport’s top talents on the roster, they’d be all but a shoo-in at, essentially, every race they choose to enter. In all reality, a downgrade would be a toothless formality, but it may be the only option the UCI has at this point to send a clear message to Astana.

It’s a message that would likely have Nibali and Italian cycling fans bearing the brunt, alongside Vinokourov and the Kazakh sponsors.

We’ll all know soon.