FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — A dark cloud hangs over Italy’s top teams. Though a court cleared three general managers, the case exposed a system where cyclists must pay to join professional teams.
The teams stand on shaky ground and risk shattering Italy’s cycling kingdom. Though the earthquakes have passed in central Italy, Italian Olympic Committee’s (CONI) case in Rome could cause several aftershocks. The national federation acquitted Gianni Savio, Angelo Citracca, and Bruno Reverberi — managers of Professional Continental teams Androni, Wilier – Southeast and Bardiani, respectively — and put the UCI license commission on alert. The commission could take into consideration these court documents when issuing 2017 racing licenses this winter.
“The UCI’s legal department asked CONI for the all documents five months ago and they had all again, this time in English, two months ago,” journalist Marco Bonarrigo told VeloNews. Bonarrigo blew the lid system in an article he wrote for Corriere della Sera. “The UCI can call up the managers and riders, read the evidence, and they could decide that some of teams won’t have a license.”
Without these three Professional Continental teams, Italy has little left. In 2017, long-running team Lampre will be registered in China as TJ Sport, and the country’s last super-team Liquigas/Cannondale closed its doors two years ago.
The teams required cyclists to pay for contracts according to the court documents. Omnium gold medalist Elia Viviani (Sky) spoke to CONI in June about the under-the-table dealings. He did not pay, but detailed how Reverberi would not let Marco Coledan, now with Trek – Segafredo, out of his contract unless he paid an inflated penalty.
“He had a contract for one more year, I wanted him on my Liquigas team, but the sum to leave was €15,000. Reasonable. He could do that since Liquigas would pay €80,000. I was going to help him pay it. Then Reverberi asked for around 30-40,000. Coledan remained another year with Bardiani before joining Trek – Segafredo.”
The dealings were not limited to Italy’s top names. If a mediocre cyclist could bring in an important sponsor, he could join the team. Parents or family businesses, according to the documents, would pay for their child’s dream career.
Matteo Mammini said that Savio asked for €50,000 from him to have a professional contract. Mammini did not pay. Patrick Facchini said that he had to bring a team sponsor along in order to race for Savio. He added that Marco Frapporti and Antonio Parrinello did the same in order to join team Androni.
The managers denied the claims. Savio explained that the sponsors that he signed wanted Facchini, not the other way around.
“A system that accepts only cyclists who are able to bring in sponsors, then that does not allow them to go to more competitive teams if they don’t pay a penalty,” said CONI prosecutor Massimo Ciardullo. “The result? If you are talented and don’t pay, you stay put as a prisoner. If you have money, you race even if you don’t have the talent, and then maybe you dope like what happened with Samuele Conti recently [Wilier – Southeast cyclist positive for human growth hormone – Ed.].”
The Italian cycling federation (FCI) cleared the three long-time managers, who risked bans of one to two years, due to a lack of evidence Thursday.
“It was a simple motive,” Bonarrigo added. “This was the cycling federation ruling. They would have thought, to ban the three managers would be to ban almost all of Italian cycling. We only have four teams with Nippo included.”
The case reverberated loudly, however. It rocked teams that, unable to expand into the WorldTour, struggle to stand their ground in the Professional Continental ranks. Bardiani sits sixth in the European rankings of Professional Continental and Continental teams. Androni is in eighth and Wilier 13th.
“It’s not all lost. The prosecutor showed that Italian cycling does not function,” wrote Italy’s leading sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport. “He lifted the lid on the lack of transparency in teams and management operating too much in a grey area. The federation should not waste time, put in more rigid rules. Enough of these shortcuts and administrative doping, which is no less serious than the chemical stuff.”
Bonarrigo explained that the international governing body must act now. “If the UCI does not intervene, then nothing will change,” he said. “Only they can say if it is legal or ethical at this point.