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TJ Sport’s uncertain 2017 WorldTour future

Chinese team TJ Sport faces uncertainty after UCI does not grant it a WorldTour license. Insiders say that the team may be struggling.

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FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — A cloud of uncertainty hangs over TJ Sport, what could be China’s first top cycling team, with its WorldTour license delayed and training camp cancelled.

Rumors of problems circulated already in October for TJ Sport, which is the latest iteration of the Lampre – Merida team from Italy. A week and a half ago, the UCI license commission announced 17 of 18 possible WorldTour teams without TJ Sport. The UCI’s footnote explained it is still reviewing the team’s application for the 2017 season.

Monday, the team cancelled its pre-season December training camp. It emailed the 24 signed cyclists — including South African Louis Meintjes, eighth in the Tour de France, and Ben Swift from team Sky — to explain the delay and to postpone any camp until January.

Team officials told VeloNews that they are busy preparing the needed paperwork and wanted to wait to say more because “it is a very delicate time and the situation is evolving.”

After nearly 25 years, the outfit risks disbanding without a license. Around 60 employees would be scrambling to find work over the Christmas holiday. Or the team could possibly drop to the Professional Continental division.

General manager Giuseppe Saronni did not respond to telephone calls for this article. The team’s sponsor liaison Mauro Gianetti went to China to hurriedly last month round up the needed paperwork. He too was unavailable to comment. After Brent Copeland left to start team Bahrain – Merida with Vincenzo Nibali, Saronni’s son Carlo took over as team manager, but he prefers to wait until after the UCI’s December 15 document deadline to comment.

“There’s some concern, yes, at least until we get the OK from the UCI,” sports director Mario Scirea told VeloNews. “We have to work for 2017 and leave the rest in the hands of Saronni.

“Logically, though, until we have that OK we are all a little worried. I have faith in him [Saronni] in what he’s done in these 25 years, though. It’s not that he just decided to sign riders and then sit back and do nothing.”

TJ Sport asked the UCI’s license commission for more time ahead of the announcement a week and a half ago due to delays in the Far East. The team told VeloNews at the time that the woman preparing the documents fell sick and lost time as a result.

It is not clear, but the delay could be over two of the commission’s four criteria: financial or administrative. The commission works behind closed doors, but perhaps proof of money or structure does not exist.

Saronni explained in earlier interviews that TJ Sport is an investment group created by China’s sports ministry to promote cycling at home. The team’s name may eventually change to one of the companies’ names in the group. Instead of Italy, it should be licensed in China.

Long-serving Lampre, a prefabrication metal company, may break completely from the team this winter. The team already confirmed Lampre would not be a title sponsor.

Colnago is supplying the bicycles. Italian Diego Ulissi collected his yesterday from the Colnago headquarters in Lombardy near Milan.

Some closely linked insiders, however, expressed concern to VeloNews in recent days about the possibly of a TJ Sport black hole, that perhaps the team may never line up for a race like the ill-fated Pegasus and Sony Ericsson teams.

One rival team manager said agents approached him inquiring about vacancies for his TJ Sport cyclists in case the team disintegrates. Hypothetically, only Swift and Meintjes could find teams in such short notice, others would struggle. Ulissi, for example, felt teams’ apathy already in September.

“We were assured that it was only a bureaucratic problem, so we are planning for 2017 as normal. Today, 10 or so cyclists visited a doctor for needed check-ups some they can receive their racing license,” Scirea added.

“It’s not as if Saronni pulled all of this out of thin air. He has contracts in hand.”

The delays could be that Saronni, instead of a private company in Italy, is dealing with a government group from a heavily guarded communist country. Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, for example, is still trying to close the €740 million ($793m) deal for his AC Milan soccer club that he made with a Chinese group in August.