Pedal meddling: Rule change puts Bjarne’s season at serious Riisk

Whether it’s bad timing or a vendetta, but a rule change by the International Cycling Union has put Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank’s participation in next season’s World Tour in jeopardy

Despite winning the Vuelta de España, over-performing in the Tour de France and signing a number of new quality riders, Bjarne Riis and his Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank (TSBTB) are struggling to renew their UCI World Tour licence for next year.

TSBTB is, along with three other cycling teams − Team Argos-Shimano, Lotto and Francaise des Jeux − in danger of not having its licence renewed for the 18-team UCI World Tour next season. Failure would leave the team requiring invitations to compete in the top events.  

With 15 places already assured, the four teams are battling it out for the final three places and, at the moment, Riis and his riders are holding up the rear (ranked 20th – one team has already said it won’t compete) − an amazing turnaround of events from the team’s Vuelta de España just two months ago.

Laust Kruse, a journalist from Danish cycling magazine Cykelmagasinet, believes that the licence threat is very real due to the team’s fragile relationship with cycling’s embattled world governing body, the UCI.

“There is a real chance that Riis won’t get the licence; he is among the teams that are currently in the dark. I think that this illustrates the strange way in which the UCI operates and the lack of transparency in its decision making,” Kruse told The Copenhagen Post.

One of the major obstacles to Riis’s team is a recent law change made by the UCI, which stipulates that ‘victory points’ won by a rider returning from a drug suspension do not count until the rider has ridden again for at least another two years.

Victory points go a long way to determining the aforementioned ranking of the teams, and this rule change means that Contador’s spectacular win in the Vuelta means nothing in terms of World Tour points as it came just a month after he had finished serving his ban, even though the UCI law came into effect after Contador had begun serving his ban.

Riis is furious that UCI’s law is retroactively denying his top rider the victory points gained this summer and has threatened to take UCI’s decision to the international arbitration body, the CAS. He also pulled Contador out of several races in China in protest at the UCI’s decision.

Riis still has sponsors behind him, but thay may flee if he doesn't get a licence (File photo: Scanpix)

Kruse wouldn’t call UCI’s actions an outright vendetta against Riis and his team, but admitted that the two factions clearly have had their differences.

“Riis criticised the point system for a long time, and [UCI chief executive Pat] McQuaid grew tired of it. Many riders have a lot of respect for Riis in the cycling community, such as Bradley McGee, and it doesn’t make sense that one of the best teams next year – remember, he signed Kreuziger, Roche, Bennati and Breschel – won’t be racing,” Laust said.

Aside from the victory points haul and evaluation of sporting pedigree, the four-man UCI Licence Commission, which is expected to make the final decision on December 10, also weighs up organisational, financial and ethical aspects of each team. And although TSBTB has its bases covered in terms of their organisation and finances, particularly with the addition of Tinkoff Bank as a sponsor, it is the ethical query that Riis and co may have trouble satisfying.

Even though Riis has stated that he practises a zero-tolerance policy towards doping now, his admission to doping while he was a rider, and the number of riders coming forward claiming they’ve doped while riding for Riis, have left a dark stain on the Dane’s reputation. A former American rider, Tyler Hamilton, even went as far as saying that Riis knew and had met with notorious doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, who was heavily involved in the Operation Puerto doping scandal in 2006.

But it’s difficult to decipher what the truth is. While some former riders, including Jörg Jaksche and Hamilton, have indicated that Riis knew and supported the use of doping for his riders, Ivan Basso, Frank Schleck, David Zabriskie, Bradley McGee and Bobby Julich all deny Riis being involved.

If TSBTB fails to secure a World Tour licence for next year, it will have to rely on wild card placements to participate in the big races, such as the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the Vuelta de España.

“Even if he doesn’t get the licence, he could still race via wildcards, but the licence, and being a member of the top league, is essential as it provides sponsors with security. The team could potentially lose sponsors if the World Tour licence is not granted,” Kruse said.

Factfile | Why TSBTB will get a World Tour licence

–          Riis and his team have been competing at the highest level for years and are a mainstay in the large races, winning the Vuelta as recently as September.

–          They have arguably the best stage rider in Alberto Contador who has won the Tour de France and the Vuelta in recent years

–          Financially, the team is a strong player in the cycling world – a position that was further consolidated with the addition of Tinkoff Bank as a sponsor

–          Riis is a well-known, respected personality in the sport and the UCI approves of Riis’s zero-tolerance stance and fight against doping

–          The team has added a number of high-quality profile riders for next season, including Nicolas Roche, Roman Kreuziger, Matti Breschel and Daniele Benatti

–          Riis’s riders, notably Contador, are very popular and have considerable fan bases. Denying Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff a licence could have negative effects for the sport’s popularity and TV licence revenue − something UCI wants to avoid

Factfile |  Why TSBTB won’t get a World Tour licence

–          Aside from Contador’s triumph in the Vuelta and some spirited Tour de France riding this summer, Riis and co haven’t won many races (including stages) in the last couple of years: only eight in 2012 and ten in 2011

–          All of the doping allegations and rumours surrounding Riis recently. The UCI may want to make an example out of Riis by denying him the licence

–          Riis has been critical of the UCI points system in the past and has pulled his top riders out of races in protest

–          They are currently ranked 20th according to the UCI’s assessment of the prospective teams’ ‘sporting values’, and only the top 18 will make it. However, one team has already said it will not compete

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