UCI grants embattled Astana team 2015 WorldTour license

The team of the Tour champion, under scrutiny for recent doping positives, was granted a 2015 WorldTour license, it announced Wednesday

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Astana, the Kazakhstani team under scrutiny for recent doping positives as well as a dubious relationship with banned Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, was granted a 2015 WorldTour license, the team announced Wednesday.

The team of Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali, and managed by controversial former pro Alexander Vinokourov, received word late Wednesday, while at a training camp in Calpe, Spain, that it would continue in the sport’s highest division.

Last week, when the UCI announced teams that had been granted licenses by its license committee, the sport’s governing body noted that Astana’s license was under further review, due to ethics concerns.

Yet, despite five doping positives in the second half of the year under the umbrella of the Kazakhstani organization, and despite recent revelations from a years-long Italian investigation into Ferrari that the doctor visited Astana’s team camp in November 2013, Astana was not penalized.

On Tuesday, UCI president Brian Cookson told that the federation had requested documents from the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) related to the long-running Padua doping investigation, in light of recent revelations that Ferrari might have worked with Astana.

“These new revelations and allegations are giving us pause for thought, and we might have to continue to look at the situation,” Cookson said Tuesday. “I haven’t seen what the license commission has recommended yet, but what they did has not taken into consideration recent events.”

Yet, ultimately, the UCI’s license commission — composed of four members who are independent of the UCI — approved the team’s inclusion at the WorldTour level, though it found that “the organization of the fight against doping, and the support personnel of the riders in place until now by the team, has defaulted.”

The composition of the license committee includes Pierre Zappelli, a former Swiss Supreme Federal Court judge; Hans Höhener, a former president of the Swiss Athletics Federation and a senior corporate executive; PhD André Hürter, president of the board of directors for Schnyder SA Biel; and Paolo Franz, who is a senior manager at IBM.

The license committee granted Astana a WorldTour license, however, under two conditions: First, that the team is audited by the Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL), and second, that the team adheres to new UCI internal operational requirements, which will be compulsory for all UCI World Teams from 2017.

The ISSUL will look into the circumstances of Astana’s doping cases, to determine “whether and to what extent the team and/or its management is responsible of the recent events. Furthermore, it will assess the team’s internal structures, culture and management systems to understand whether these are adequate to ensure that the highest ethical standards are upheld.”

The ISSUL will release its report early February 2015. The audit will be paid for by the Astana team.

The Licence Commission warned that in the event that the audit might “lead to reveal deficiencies or in case of faulty implementation of the internal operational requirements or if another doping case would occur within the team during the 2015 season, the UCI would refer the matter to the Licence Commission for a determination on an eventual withdrawal of the licence.”

The Licence Commission also noted, with respect to the recent allegations regarding the Padova [Padua] investigation, that “as UCI is still waiting for the file, for the time being, the elements of this procedure are unknown to the UCI and the Licence Commission and no consequence can be drawn in this case at hand. The UCI would call upon the Commission if evidence against the team is established.”

UCI president Brian Cookson summed it up by saying that the team “can be considered very much to be on probation.”

If Astana had been denied a WorldTour license, it would have almost surely received a UCI Pro Continental license, meaning the team would have still been able to compete at many major races — just without a guarantee to participate in all WorldTour events, such as the sport’s three grand tours.

Pro Continental teams are eligible for wildcard invitations to WorldTour events, however the Association Internationale des Organisateurs de Courses Cyclistes (AIOCC) has agreed that  members of the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC) will be given priority on wildcard invitations, and Astana’s place in the MPCC has also been on shaky ground over the past few months. The potential loss of a WorldTour license, over ethics concerns, could have potentially pushed the MPCC to follow suit.

The team posted a brief message on its website Wednesday: “Astana Pro Team is happy and proud to announce that we have received a 2015 World Tour License and will race at the highest level of the sport in the upcoming season. Thanks to riders, staff, family, sponsors, friends and fans for your support.”

On Twitter, the Astana Pro Team account followed the news by posting videos of its recent sporting successes.

Stay tuned for more on this story, including comment from the UCI, as it develops.