GENT, Belgium (VN) — Last week, Astana posted two press releases on its website that largely went unnoticed. The embattled Kazakhstani-backed squad announced new links to cycling federations in Italy and the United Arab Emirates, moves that normally wouldn’t draw much attention if the team’s future wasn’t on the line.
What did attract attention was a story published Monday morning by Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf that reported via unnamed sources that the UCI had all but made up its mind on Astana’s future, and would relegate the beleaguered team via the License Commission to the Continental Division, a decision that would be a kiss of death for the team of defending Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali.
On Monday, just days ahead of its Thursday meeting before the four-member License Commission in Switzerland, Astana officials cried foul.
“Either the story is wrong, or the UCI has already made up its mind about Astana even before the License Commission hears us,” an Astana team official told VeloNews. “If we lose before the License Commission, we would immediately file an appeal to CAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport], which is truly an independent body.”
By Monday afternoon, the UCI hastily released a statement to the media, stating that claims in the news report that Astana, now one of 17 WorldTour-level teams, would be relegated to continental status are untrue.
“Following a misleading article published today in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) would like to clarify that no hearing has yet taken place in the Astana case and therefore no decision has been made,” the statement reads. “The UCI won’t make any further comment until the License Commission has rendered its decision.”
Later that day, Astana officials released this comment: “Astana Pro Team has every reason to believe that our 2 April meeting with the UCI License Commission will be a properly conducted legal hearing which fully observes due process, and is not a foregone conclusion. We welcome the UCI’s clarification on this matter this morning. At this hearing, Astana Pro Team intends to present clear evidence that not only is Astana Pro Team in full compliance with the UCI’s ethical criteria, but we are also taking proactive steps to enhance the role our team plays in the global fight against performance-enhancing drugs in cycling.”
The Monday flare-up is just the latest in a long-stewing feud between the UCI and Astana. Problems began last fall, when the Iglinskiy brothers both returned positive tests for the banned blood booster EPO. When it was later revealed that three more riders in Astana’s development team, one of them riding as a stagiaire with the pro team, also tested positive, the administration of UCI president Brian Cookson was under heavy pressure to “do something.”
Cookson publicly revealed his uneasiness with the team’s situation, but under the banner of transparency and fair play that was a key part of his electoral manifesto that led to his victory against Pat McQuaid in 2013, he left the team’s future in the hands of the UCI’s License Commission, an independent panel that reviews the financial health, ethics, and professionalism of cycling’s top teams.
Last fall, Astana was issued a license with the caveat than the team’s past and present would be examined in an audit. When the findings came back from a Lausanne-based institute over the winter, Cookson made the publicly brave decision on February 27 to call for the License Commission to revoke Astana’s license.
In short, Cookson had seen what he believed were some unsavory elements within the Astana structure, and wanted the team out. It’s a high-stakes gamble that is playing out this week.
Astana is scheduled to appear Thursday before the License Commission to present its side of the story. Until the De Telegraaf story broke Monday, Astana officials said they were hoping for a fair hearing.
“We’ve stayed quiet during the entire time because we wanted to respect the process, and we wanted to make our case before the commission, not in the headlines,” the Astana official said.
The UCI countered Monday, insisting the matter remains in the hands of the commission, and that no decision has been made.
Astana officials said they continue to prepare what they promise will be a “robust” defense. The team will bring representatives from team management, sport directors, the team’s medical staff, sponsors, and perhaps even riders to provide information to the panel. A decision could come in as soon as 10 days.
And those press releases last week on Astana’s website? Those revealed how Astana is bolstering its political support with such powerful cycling federations as Italy and the UAE, which is emerging as an important new player on the cycling landscape.
There is no question Astana has proven to be a lightning rod of controversy ever since it stepped in during 2006 to take over the sponsorship deal for Liberty Seguros, the Manolo Saiz-managed team that sunk in the wake of the Operación Puerto doping scandal.
Astana riders Alexander Vinokourov, now the team’s general manager, and Andrey Kashechkin both tested positive for blood doping during the 2007 season. Now-banned sport director Johan Bruyneel took over the team in 2008, and banned-for-life Lance Armstrong raced in an Astana jersey during his 2009 comeback season.
Following the doping scandals last season, coupled with the team’s sometimes-dark history, some believe the team should be ostracized from cycling, and made an example of. Others, however, believe the team is no different than others with historical links to the EPO era, only that they’ve bungled the PR campaign, and that it’s unfair that an entire organization that includes staff as well as riders should pay the price for the sins of a few.
Astana faces a momentous test this week. Hanging in the balance is not only the team’s racing license, but its future as well. In short, if the License Commission decides to revoke Astana’s WorldTour license, and it loses an appeal to CAS, the team of defending Tour champion Nibali could go down in flames. That would produce more negative headlines for the sport, throw its riders and staff onto the street right in the heart of the racing season, and see the departure of a big-money team sponsor from an important emerging market.
A similar case in 2012, when the UCI tried to revoke Katusha’s racing license, ended in a CAS decision in favor of the Russian-backed team in early 2013. Astana will be hoping history repeats itself, if it appeals the case.
If Astana succeeds, the decision could prove not only embarrassing to the UCI, but undercut Cookson’s credibility. These allegations of backroom deals and shadowy characters is just the kind of image that Cookson finds so abhorrent. The case also reignites the debate on how cycling should deal with riders and team managers who were involved in the doping culture of the past, and what guidelines, if any, should be in place for the present and future.
There is no question the stakes couldn’t be higher for both the UCI and Astana. Like a good bike race, it’s going to down to the wire.