By Neal Rogers
The line-up for the upcoming Tour de Georgia changed Tuesday when ProTour team Saunier Duval-Scott announced that it would not be able to attend the race.
Replacing the Spanish ProTour team is domestic squad Rock Racing, which had filed a lawsuit last week seeking a court-ordered injunction to be invited to the race based on what the team said was an oral agreement with organizer Medalist Sports.
The case had originally been scheduled for a Tuesday hearing, but legal proceedings were not necessary, as Rock and Medalist settled the issue without going to court.
The seven-day, 660-mile stage race begins Monday, April 21.
“The fans told us they wanted us to be there,” said Rock team owner Michael Ball. “We are pleased that we were able to work with Medalist to come to a mutually beneficial decision. Now the race will truly field the best of the best of international and domestic pro cycling teams which will only build on the momentum created for domestic cycling at the Tour of California.”
Messages left with Medalist Sports were not answered by late Tuesday afternoon.
Scott USA’s Adrian Montgomery said that Saunier Duval pulled out of the race because the team is battle-weary after the cobbled classics and needs to focus on May’s Giro d’Italia.
“They have crashed way too many times this year and they can’t field a team,” Montgomery said. “They can’t afford to not let everyone heal up and get ready for the Giro and the Tour de France.”
Saunier Duval’s David Cañada and Rubens Bertogliati finished third and fourth overall at last year’s Tour de Georgia after driving a breakaway that took 29 minutes on the race’s GC favorites.
Montgomery said that, for the American bike sponsor, the Tour de Georgia was a “great race and does good for our national marketing push,” but added that he had asked the team to prioritize the Amgen Tour of California and September’s Tour of Missouri.
If the team received an invitation to the Tour de Georgia, Montgomery said, “I told them they should come over … if they could.”
Last month, Medalist’s Jim Birrell told VeloNews that Rock Racing had not been invited to the race simply because there was not enough room for the team. This year’s Tour de Georgia will field 15 teams, the same as in 2007 and 2006, but down from the 18 invited to the 2003 inaugural edition.
“There are a finite number of slots we’re interested in filling, and it’s hard, there are too many qualified teams to extend invites to, and not enough slots,” Birrell said.
Birrell also expressed displeasure with Rock Racing’s entourage at the Amgen Tour of California, which included podium-girl models, a PR firm, fashion photographers, a dozen-man film crew shooting a documentary and Ball’s driver/bodyguard.
“Their performance at the Amgen Tour of California did not resonate well,” Birrell said.
With Saunier Duval out, there was space for another team, rendering Birrell’s claim, that there was no space, moot.
“I kind of saw this coming,” Montgomery said. “With Saunier Duval unable to attend, there was no way Medalist could say the race was full.”
Some saw the shuffling of the teams as suspicious, as it is as rare for a ProTour team to withdrawal from a UCI stage race as it is for a race organizer to settle with a team threatening to sue its way into an event.
The UCI requires that a 2.HC stage race invite a minimum of five teams from foreign countries and a maximum of half the peloton made up of ProTour teams. Beyond that, race invitations are at the discretion of the event organizers.
With Saunier Duval’s withdrawal, the Tour de Georgia will still host five foreign teams — Symmetrics (Canada), Astana (Luxembourg), CSC (Denmark), Gerolsteiner (Germany) and GE-Marco Polo-Trek (China).
Scott said he learned about Saunier Duval’s intent to withdrawal from the race last Thursday, and that was completely unrelated to Rock’s decision to sue Medalist Sports.
“It was purely a coincidence,” Montgomery said. “We had every intention of being there. If anything, it’s typical of the team’s Spanish planning to decide late in the game. The reality is, a slot opened up, and a team that really wanted to be there got to take it. Everyone’s happy. I hope what comes out of this is that in some way Rock tones down whatever has pissed off Medalist, and this can be a new beginning for everyone.”
To date in 2008, Rock has won six races and registered 15 podium finishes. The team’s roster will be announced in the coming days, but will likely include recent Redlands Classic winner Santiago Botero, Oscar Sevilla, Tyler Hamilton, Victor Hugo Peña and Freddie Rodriguez.
“Santiago Botero’s win, and the team’s performance at Redlands, is a clear indication of what to expect next week in Georgia,” said Ball.