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Unibet.com folds

The Belgian-Swedish Unibet.com team will cease operations at the end of the season, Belgian TV network Sporza reported on Wednesday. “We knew it was coming,” general manager Koen Terryn told Sporza. “Unfortunately, we need to tell our riders that they have to look for new teams next year.” While it had successfully obtained a ProTour license at the onset of the 2007 season, Unibet.com soon became the focal point of an ongoing power struggle between the sport’s governing body and the organizers of the three grand tours, the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España. In

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Even Unibet's effort to circumvent the whole betting issue didn't work.

Even Unibet’s effort to circumvent the whole betting issue didn’t work.

Photo: Agence France Presse – 2007

The Belgian-Swedish Unibet.com team will cease operations at the end of the season, Belgian TV network Sporza reported on Wednesday.

“We knew it was coming,” general manager Koen Terryn told Sporza. “Unfortunately, we need to tell our riders that they have to look for new teams next year.”

While it had successfully obtained a ProTour license at the onset of the 2007 season, Unibet.com soon became the focal point of an ongoing power struggle between the sport’s governing body and the organizers of the three grand tours, the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España.

In particular, Tour organizers Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) made certain the team was excluded from a host of its events, including the Tour, Paris-Nice, Liége-Bastogne-Liége and Paris-Roubaix. The team was also barred from May’s Giro and has not been invited to next month’s Vuelta.

While ASO and the other two members of the “big three” organizers said the exclusion was based on Unibet’s involvement in Internet-based gambling, the dispute most likely centered on the UCI/ASO battle over the structure of the ProTour and television rights.

“It’s all regrettable,” Terryn said. “Our sponsor had planned to invest 32 million euros over four seasons, but there’s no value in that investment if we are at the center of a war between the UCI and ASO. We were taken hostage by ASO to hurt the UCI.

“The result is that 55 people will be out of work in a few weeks.”

Among the riders left without contracts are Frenchman Jimmy Casper and Britain’s Jeremy Hunt.

The other team awarded a new ProTour license in 2007 was the Kazakh-financed Astana squad. While it, too, was not guaranteed participation in any of the big three’s events, the team had been getting wild-card invitations all season. That, however, ended with the recent blood-doping positives by team leaders Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin.

Earlier this week, Astana was formally dis-invited from the Vuelta and there has been widespread speculation that the UCI may pull its ProTour license.

Unibet’s decision to cease operations comes less than a week after the U.S.-based Discovery Channel team made a similar announcement. Operated by Tailwind Sports, the Discovery team was left without a sponsor when the American television network announced in February that it would not renew its contract at the end of the year.

While Tailwind co-owner Lance Armstrong said that he and his partners were confident of securing a commitment from another sponsor, the company said the “poisoned environment” in cycling wasn’t conducive to investment. Armstrong and business partner Bill Stapleton both indicated they would leave the sport until things improve.

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