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LEON, Spain (VN) — It’s crunch time this week for Joaquim Rodríguez and his quest to assure a ticket to the 2013 Tour de France.
The 33-year-old Spaniard knows that the mountainous Tour parcours presents his best, and perhaps last, chance to fight for the yellow jersey.
Yet the world No. 1 finds himself caught in the middle of a nasty battle between Katusha, Rodríguez’s professional home since 2010, and the UCI.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport will hear arguments Friday in the ongoing dispute between Katusha and the UCI, which denied the Russian team’s ProTeam license for 2013.
“Purito” is nervously waiting on the sidelines as the process plays out in court. Angel Edo, an ex-pro who works as Rodríguez’s agent, says his client is hoping for a speedy decision.
“More than anything, we want this issue finalized,” Edo told VeloNews. “Then we can make a decision on what to do. Purito has just come off the best season of his career and he wants nothing less than to race the Tour. He deserves to be there.”
In December, the UCI licensing commission cited “ethical reasons” when it denied Katusha’s ProTeam license and refused to award it one of the valued 18 spots that assure teams places in all WorldTour events, including the Tour.
Katusha management is challenging that decision to CAS and, in the meantime, is racing under a Pro Continental license. Rodríguez debuted at the Tour de San Luís and is racing this week at the Mallorca Challenge in Spain.
“Joaquim is trying to take everything in stride,” Edo said. “Until we know what CAS decides, we cannot do anything. Joaquim is doing his work and preparing for the season. The faster this is resolved, the better for everyone: for Joaquim, for the team and for the race organizers.”
With its future in limbo, the team is dependent on invitations to the season’s major dates. In early January, RCS Sport invited Katusha to Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo and the Giro di Lombardia, but left it out of the Giro, where Rodríguez was second in 2012.
Later in January, ASO followed suit, keeping Katusha out of its wildcards for Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné, a barometer of what’s in store when it comes time for the Tour invites.
For Rodríguez, the writing is on the wall. He wants out.
He’s already petitioned the UCI to let him get out of his Katusha contract, which has an escape clause linked to the team’s guarantee it will hold a ProTeam license.
Without the ProTeam license, Rodríguez is free to fly — and may not be alone. Edo, however, said staying with Katusha is the best and first option.
“Joaquim wants to stay with Katusha, but only if it’s going to be in the WorldTour,” Edo said. “We have already seen that there’s no Paris-Nice, no Dauphiné, no Giro. All this is not the fault of Joaquim’s and it would be a very reduced racing calendar for him. So if Katusha is not WorldTour, he will go to another team.”
Finding a ride this late in the game, however, is no easy feat, but Rodríguez is sure to land somewhere.
Where remains an interesting question. Edo says there is plenty of interest.
“Despite the timing, there is interest,” Edo said. “And logically, it would be with another WorldTour team. For a rider as talented as Joaquim, there is always a place somewhere. Right now, we are all waiting for CAS.”
Rodríguez brings a lot of firepower to the table. He’s one of the few riders who shine in one-day classics (he’s won Flèche Wallonne and the Giro di Lombardia), and win stages and battle for the overall in grand tours.
Since 2008, Rodríguez has finished in the top seven of every grand tour he’s finished, other than 19th in the 2011 Vuelta a España after he fell ill, with two third places in the Vuelta and second to Ryder Hesjedal in last year’s Giro by just 16 seconds.
Despite his prodigious talent, it might be more difficult than he believes to find a ride, at least on the terms he’d like.
Most of the major teams have closed out their budgets or already have a major in-house GC candidate. UCI rules limit ProTeams to 30 riders (depending on how many neo-pros are under contract), so many teams are already full.
La Gazzetta dello Sport reported in January that Rodríguez had already reached an agreement with Argos-Shimano, something the team vigorously denied, saying that Rodríguez, as a veteran rider, did not blend with its organic, homegrown plan to develop young talent.
A quick glance of likely suitors includes Lampre-Merida and Omega Pharma-Quick Step.
Lampre already has 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego and Michele Scarponi, but with just 26 riders on its roster, the Italian team could find space for Rodríguez.
Rodríguez, fluent in Italian, could easily slip into the Lampre jersey. Its two star GC riders are far from guarantees. Scarponi’s future is clouded by alleged links to Dr. Michele Ferrari while Cunego has all but given up on trying to win another grand tour.
Omega Pharma could be another natural choice. Funded by Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala, the team has picked up top talent over the past two seasons to broaden the team’s base beyond its classics’ roots.
In 2012, Tony Martin, the Velits brothers and Levi Leipheimer were the top additions. Mark Cavendish comes on board this year, assuring the team’s presence in the bunch sprints.
Leipheimer’s exit — team boss Patrick Lefevere fired him after he was part of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency case against Lance Armstrong — leaves a hole in the Omega Pharma arsenal. That hole is one that the team is likely not interested in filling, however, given its commitment to work for Cavendish in the grand tour sprints after he left the Sky GC machine for 2013.
With 29 riders, Rodríguez would just be able to slip in, but Lefevere told VeloNews last month he has no room for new riders.
The Spanish teams might be a natural home for Rodríguez, but Euskaltel-Euskadi already has a full roster and has no money. Movistar, which Rodríguez left after 2009, has bet everything on Alejandro Valverde for the Tour this year and might be hesitant to bring him back.
Then there’s question of what happens if Katusha wins its CAS appeal.
What if Katusha wins
UCI sources have confirmed that the WorldTour league will remain limited to 18 teams, so even if Katusha wins at CAS, there’s no guarantee that it would be readmitted.
Instead, the UCI license commission would reconvene to review all the teams again, meaning that if Katusha finds its way back into the WorldTour, another team would be rejected.
That would likely trigger another round of appeals. If that’s the case, things could come down to the wire concerning the Tour. Last year, ASO released its wildcards in early April. With the slow hands of CAS and UCI, things could get messy.
Edo says Rodríguez simply wants to race the Tour.
“All of those issues are questions for the lawyers,” Edo said. “With luck, he can stay with Katusha. If not, he will go to another team. Joaquim wants to race his bike and he wants to be in the Tour.”
We may have a better idea of what bike that will be on Friday.