Ekimov: Katusha’s first grand tour is the license fight

Russian team boss speaks at bitter team presentation

MILAN (VN) — Katusha’s fourth annual team presentation on Wednesday was the most bitter yet. The focus was not on WorldTour champion Joaquím Rodríguez’s stellar season, but on the UCI nixing the Russian team from the first division.

“The focus is the license,” Katusha’s new general manager, Viatcheslav Ekimov said in a press conference. “We are already in the middle of our first grand tour, which is defending our right to a WorldTour license through 2015. Our motto is this: ‘We want the license.’”

Last Monday, the UCI’s license committee announced the 18 first division ProTeams that have automatic entry into the WorldTour events. Katusha, after racing four years in the top division, was cut.

The committee measured the applicant teams, including Ag2r La Mondiale and Argos-Shimano, on four criteria: sporting, financial, administrative and ethical. It was the latter, ethics, that tripped the team, which has seen four doping cases, a fraud case, a potentially tainted general manager and alleged Michele Ferrari links.

Christian Pfannberger, Antonio Colom and Denis Galimzyanov have tested positive for EPO in Katusha colors. Alexander Kolobnev was caught using a banned diuretic in last year’s Tour, but later cleared for medical reasons.

Kolobnev, Mikhail Ignatiev, Vladimir Gusev and Denis Menchov are linked to doping doctor Ferrari in the ongoing Padua investigation in Italy. Kolobnev is also under investigation for allegedly selling the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège to Alexander Vinokourov for €150,000. Ekimov himself is potentially tied to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into his former U.S. Postal Service team.

Ekimov and predecessor Hans-Michael Holczer met with the committee and pled the team’s case on November 22. It was fruitless.

“They name four doping cases, but there are only three if you consider Kolobnev was cleared. Galimzyanov wrote a letter to us, and also to the commission, saying he acted completely on his own without help from the team,” Ekimov said. “I also want to clarify that the commission never mentioned the names Ferrari, Ekimov and Menchov, even if they were written by the media.”

The licensing committee did not publish the justification for its decision, but it might have also considered the team’s administrative nightmares. After Andrei Tchmil left the team in 2011, it brought in Holczer and later Ekimov – three GMs in four years. Ekimov has experience as Lance Armstrong’s former right-hand man, but is a potential ticking bomb. He is believed to be Rider-11 in affidavits tied to USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” in the Armstrong case, published October 10.

“There are still several dozen redacted names from our reasoned decision,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart told The Guardian today. “Footnote 18 [in the decision] says we’re still continuing our investigation and that’s about those names.”

For now, Katusha will focus its efforts in Lausanne, Switzerland, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The team announced five days ago that it filed a case with CAS, though court representatives have yet to respond to VeloNews when contacted about a potential hearing date.

Katusha could consider racing in the second division and relying on wildcard invitations to the WorldTour events. With Rodríguez, it should receive invitations to several classics, the Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia. Ekimov, however, insisted that there is no plan B.

“No, we only have a plan A and we are pushing ahead with it,” Ekimov said. “I’ll repeat, we are only asking to have the license which belongs to us.”

He added that the team will not try to race in the Tour Down Under, but plans to begin its season in Argentina at the Tour de San Luis and in Europe with the Mallorca Challenge. However, it at least needs a Pro Continental license to do so and has yet to apply for one. Last night, the UCI named the 2013 second division teams with the note: “Katusha, initially rejected from the UCI WorldTour, can apply for a place in the second division.”