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Toyota-United releases riders

Toyota-United team riders are free to seek new teams, and — though the team's owners continue to search for a new title sponsor for 2009 — the team is unlikely to continue next year with anything resembling its current lineup. And the team's owner says the UCI is partly to blame. Managers told team members in a conference call on Friday that they are released from their contracts because the team will be unable to sign up a new title sponsor in time to meet a UCI team license registration deadline.

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By Steve Frothingham

Toyota-United's Ben Day on the attack in Salt Lake City's twilight criterium Friday.

Toyota-United’s Ben Day on the attack in Salt Lake City’s twilight criterium Friday.

Photo: Ben Ross/Action Images

Toyota-United team riders are free to seek new teams, and — though the team’s owners continue to search for a new title sponsor for 2009 — the team is unlikely to continue next year with anything resembling its current lineup.

And the team’s owner says the UCI is partly to blame.

Managers told team members in a conference call on Friday that they are released from their contracts because the team will be unable to sign up a new title sponsor in time to meet a UCI team license registration deadline.

“The team as it has been known for three years in name, and the current composition of riders, staff and management, will cease to exist as of December 31, 2008,” the team said in a news release Friday.

The team announced in May that Toyota would not renew its three-year sponsorship, which expires Dec. 31.

Team owner Sean Tucker said he’s talking with two potential title sponsors. He criticized the UCI for rules he said crippled his efforts.

“As it stands, the number one team in North America can’t continue because of these stupid rules,” he told VeloNews Friday.

The first rule restricts the number and type of “specialist” riders a team can hire to meet the rider age limit for Continental teams like Toyota-United. Continental teams are allowed to have no more than half their riders over age 28. So many teams hire young specialists — BMX, track or mountain bike riders called ‘ghost riders’ — to balance out their rosters. But for 2009 the UCI is limiting teams to four specialists and making BMX and downhill riders ineligible.

The rule is intended to encourage Continental teams to support developing talent. The top tier teams in the Pro Continental category do not have the restriction. Tucker says the rule might make sense in Europe, where there is a deeper talent pool and more sponsorship. But he says its unrealistic for North America.

A UCI spokesman did not immediately return phone calls Friday.

In any case, the change to the ghost rider rule makes it nearly impossible for the team to continue with its current lineup, which includes 28+ riders Henk Vogels, Ivan Dominguez, Chris Baldwin, Chris Wherry and others.

To keep the team together, it would have to move up to Pro Continental status, a bigger budget category. But the Pro Continental registration deadline is Oct. 30 and Tucker said he does not expect to have a new sponsorship contract by then.

“That’s way too early for corporate America,” he said.

Tucker said his best hope is to sign a new title sponsor and register for 2009 as a Continental team with a younger roster.

“We would have to make 2009 a rebuilding year and look to go Pro Continental the next year,” he said.

“It’s truly a pity that we were not able to get a contract signed in time to keep our family together going forward, even though we have a couple of sponsors who can potentially sign in the coming months,” Tucker said.