Criterium standings leader riding as unpaid amateur with UnitedHealthcare

After a late lifeline, UnitedHealthcare's Carlos Alzate is riding as an unpaid amateur and racking up with wins

UnitedHealthcare’s Carlos Alzate Escobar, who has dominated the 2013 National Criterium Calendar, is currently racing as an unpaid amateur with one of the United States’ top professional teams.

Alzate, who finished fourth overall in the 2012 NCC standings as a member of the now-defunct Exergy team, was announced as a new signing by UHC in March. Since then, the 30-year-old Colombian has racked up 18 podium places, including seven victories. But try as you might, you won’t find the current NCC points leader’s name listed on his team’s official UCI roster.

The discrepancy has led to much discussion amongst his competitors, but Alzate’s participation is permitted under a little-known provision of USA Cycling rules, according to federation officials.

Unlike the balance of NCC teams — each of which holds domestic registration through USA Cycling — UnitedHealthcare competes under a UCI Pro Continental license. This elevated status, which enables UHC’s entry into high-level UCI races around the globe, requires each rider’s registration through the governing body’s offices in Aigle, Switzerland.

The team’s general manager Mike Tamayo says UHC intends to contract with Alzate through 2014 and has submitted the requisite paperwork. The process, however, which includes registration in the sport’s biological passport program and an elaborate application audit (which ensures, among other things, that the rider is not under contract elsewhere), can be lengthy. Tamayo expects Alzate’s name to be added to the UCI’s official team roster no later than the end of this week.

In order to allow Alzate to begin competing in March, the team tapped a little-known provision through which professional teams are concurrently licensed as amateur USA Cycling clubs. While the composition of these clubs typically mirrors a team’s professional roster, NCC rules permit for the inclusion of additional, domestic club riders (who may or may not be members of the professional team) as long as the team/club combination does not exceed six riders in any given race.

“[Within the] USA Cycling rules, we don’t necessarily differentiate between a club team rider and a professional rider,” said Micah Rice, USA Cycling’s director of national events. “The NCC is a series of invitational races in which both pros and Cat. 1’s can race. Right now Carlos is considered a Cat. 1. As long as he’s a member of the UnitedHealthcare club and racing in their jersey, then all is well.”

Rice described the practice as fairly commonplace, albeit with much less high-profile riders. UHC’s Tamayo, meanwhile, described the tactic as a bridge to the future.

“This is our first time using that rule, and we’re only using it temporarily because we’re waiting to contract Carlos with the core team as well,” Tamayo told VeloNews. “Basically, we intend to hire him for two years, but we couldn’t during February [due to the need to complete the UCI’s registration requirements first].”

As the team awaits completion of the process in Switzerland, Alzate finds himself in an unusual, grey area. He is not a paid member of the team (UHC is covering Alzate’s expenses in the U.S., but he is not yet salaried), nor is he technically a member of its professional squad at all. As the only non-pro member of the UHC club team, Alzate’s participation is currently limited to domestic events under the supervision of USA Cycling.

But all that is about to change, said Tamayo.

“We want to use him at bigger races,” said Tamayo, who is eyeing Alzate for a spot with the team in Portugal in August.

“Carlos is too talented to be limited to criteriums in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re going to help him develop into a lot more rider than he’s showing now. We’ve got big things in mind.”

And while Alzate’s status has led to speculation within the peloton, not all of his competitors have been eager to take the bait.

Adam Myerson, captain of the SmartStop-Mountain Khakis team, which currently holds a distant second place to UHC in the NCC team classification, told VeloNews he’s been approached by individuals hoping to call Alzate’s eligibility into question, but discounted their concerns based largely on his respect for Tamayo.

“Look, Mike is probably the most successful and experienced director out there,” said Myerson. “He’s well-versed in the rules. So I just couldn’t imagine he would ever have gone ahead with something like that if it weren’t technically correct. Why risk it?”

Meanwhile, Myerson sees the move as a good one for Alzate and UHC, even if not for his own squad.

“They saved Alzate’s season … and potentially his career,” said Myerson. “If you look at the situation that he was in [having lost his contract after the dissolution of Exergy], I’m quite sure he was happy to get the ride that he got. It’s obviously hurt us tremendously, since it’s made their team just that much harder to beat … but good for them for rescuing Carlos. We’re just happy to see a good bike racer get his season back.”