Katusha takes aim, temporarily, at second division

Russian squad applies for Pro Continental license, acceptance in Movement for a Credible Cycling

MILAN (VN) — Katusha appears to be lowering its aim toward a second division license as it awaits word from the Court of Arbitration for Sport on its WorldTour ouster. Despite saying there was no plan B after the UCI axed the team from the sport’s top league, Viatcheslav Ekimov’s team is preparing for the lower ranks.

The Russian team applied for a second division license with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and yesterday asked to join the Movement for a Credible Cycling (MPCC). The movement’s members, who must adhere to stricter anti-doping rules than WADA Code, receive priority when requesting invitations to races.

Katusha found itself in its current position after four years in the top ranks. In fact, last year it finished second in the team rankings and first in the rider rankings with Joaquím Rodríguez. He won one-day classics Flèche Wallonne and Giro di Lombardia, and finished on the podium in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.

The UCI’s license commission, however, refused to renew its first division license last month over what the UCI called ethical concerns. The team has been hit by four doping cases, seen its riders investigated in Italy, and changed general managers three times.

The team’s newest GM, Ekimov, explained at the team presentation just over two weeks ago that the team would not consider a plan B. He insisted it would focus its efforts on taking back its first division license, which was valid through 2015.

“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.”

Katusha appealed to sport’s high court in Switzerland last month. CAS said it would get to the case as soon as possible, but yesterday dealt a blow in refusing the team’s request for a provisional first division license. The Giro announced on Tuesday that it would not invite Katusha even if it were a second division team. The disappointments and ticking clock — the season starts in Argentina January 21 — has forced Ekimov to adjust his plans.

In a letter to the MPCC, Ekimov indicated his worry about racing when he said that his request is partly due to the organizers’ rules.

First division teams receive guaranteed starts in the WorldTour races, including the classics and grand tours, but second division teams must apply for wildcard invitations. The Association of Race Organizers (AIOCC) agreed on November 30 to give priority to MPCC members when issuing invitations and essentially forced second division teams to join.

Katusha insists that a Pro Continental license is only for temporary purposes. A team insider told VeloNews today, “We simply asked for a second division license while waiting for the CAS decision.”

When contacted, CAS told VeloNews that it has yet to schedule a date for Katusha’s appeal against the license commission. Katusha’s near 80 employees, including 30 pro riders, are wondering about their 2013 plans. The first WorldTour race of the year, the Tour Down Under, is already off its schedule.

With its results from last season and provisional MPCC membership, Katusha will appeal to many big races organizers as a second division team. Part of the charm, however, may be lost. Spanish star Rodríguez is reportedly planning to jump ship to join a first division team and ensure he races the Tour de France.

Then there is fellow Russian team RusVelo, which is also funded by Russian billionaire Igor Makarov. If Katusha races in the second division, it would essentially face a complicated fight for the same race invitations.

Whatever direction Katusha steers, the road appears rocky and far less golden than 2012.