IAM Cycling In, Europcar Out, Astana Warned: A Closer Look at the WorldTour Licensing Decisions

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The Annual WorldTour license distribution process is, for most teams in the top division, a formality of paperwork. Winter 2014’s licensing period, however, has proven to be a newsworthy affair: one team was promoted from the Pro Continental level to the WorldTour, one team lost its WorldTour license, and one team was awarded its license with several strings attached, including a requirement to undergo a third-party investigation. The promotion, the demotion, and the probation each merit a closer look.

IAM Cycling Joins Cycling’s Top Division

Starting with the feel-good news, Swiss outfit IAM Cycling was officially awarded their WorldTour license in the first week of December. The announcement wasn’t a surprise by the time it came (various outlets had reported that the promotion was likely), but it was nonetheless a confirmation of much planning and hard work paying off. IAM Cycling came into existence in 2013 and made a few key signings prior to the 2014 season that made clear their commitment to competing with the elite teams in the sport. The team’s marquee additions, Mathias Frank and Sylvain Chavanel, both turned in fine seasons, elevating IAM Cycling to the top of the pile among Pro Continental squads (no team ranking system is perfect, but they did earn the highest Cycling Quotient Ranking of any PCT team).

With Cannondale’s exit creating a WorldTour opening for the 2015 season, IAM saw their opportunity to advance and took advantage of it. The team may not have the abundance of race-winners of Movistar or Tinkoff-Saxo, but the collection of established talents and up-and-comers (including newly signed Clément Chevrier and Sondre Holst Enger) should prove sufficient for IAM to stay relevant even on a tougher schedule, a sentiment shared by team GC leader Mathias Frank. Frank is a bona fide contender in the stage races, especially the one-weekers, Sylvain Chavanel is a deadly one-day racer, time trialist, and stagehunter, and Matteo Pelucchi and Heinrich Haussler are capable of delivering results on flatter profiles. In other words, the squad may not have the depth of talent to support a Grand Tour winner, but strong riders in key roles give them the firepower to take a few wins at the WorldTour level.

Europcar Denied WorldTour License

As IAM joins cycling’s top division, Europcar will leave it behind. It’s one and done for the French team, who earned a promotion for the 2014 season only to find themselves facing a budget shortfall for 2015, a shortfall that ultimately led the License Commission to deny the team’s WorldTour application. From a business standpoint, things are dire for the squad right now (Europcar will be pulling out as a sponsor after 2015), but, all things considered, a demotion to the Pro Continental ranks may be for the best. Europcar was the WorldTour’s weakest link in 2014; to return to Cycling Quotient for further guidance, the French outfit was dead last among WorldTour teams in CQ Rankings this season, and not far ahead of PCT squads IAM Cycling and Cofidis, despite receiving automatic invites to all WorldTour events. Pierre Rolland was an admirable 4th in the Giro d’Italia, but beyond that the WorldTour spoils were thin for Europcar. As a French team composed almost exclusively of French riders, Europcar is likely to get invited to the major French races regardless of whether they are at the WorldTour level, and for a French team composed almost exclusively of French riders, that’s what matters. Given the squad’s struggle to deliver results when stretched thin across the WorldTour calendar this year, dropping to the second division might not be the worst thing in the world for Europcar.

Astana Rides On

The biggest news item of WorldTour licensing system was not a promotion or demotion, but, oddly enough, a renewal. Having racked up two doping positives in their WorldTour squad and a total of five across their whole organization in 2014, along with other reported misdeeds (alleged collaboration with doping doctor/cycling persona non grata Michele Ferrari) to boot, Astana’s 2015 WorldTour spot was not guaranteed. However, after a review period, the UCI announced Wednesday that Astana would, in fact, receive their license. For many fans, awarding the Kazakh outfit with a ticket to ride at the top division was tantamount to old-fashioned complacency with a broken system, but from a legal perspective, the UCI was in a difficult spot. The last time the UCI’s License Commission (an entity that operates independently) attempted to take action against a team that had racked up too many positives (Katusha), the team appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and ultimately won the case, setting a precedent for future attempts to use the licensing process in a punitive fashion. Though repeated doping offenses within their organization and allegations of collusion with Michele Ferrari make it difficult to ignore the signs of potential systematic problems, in point of fact, the Astana WorldTour squad only notched two positive tests this season. A denied license probably would not have held up under CAS scrutiny with the current body of evidence, at least the body of evidence that exists publicly.

Instead of setting up a costly and potentially embarrassing CAS battle, the License Commission gave Astana their WorldTour license but attached a few important probational strings to the decision; among them, a stipulation that Astana be subject to an independent audit with the understanding that should further evidence of rule-breaking come to light, the WorldTour license could be withdrawn. In short, this might not be the end of the story for Astana’s WorldTour ride in 2015, especially with evidence from the Padova investigation on Michele Ferrari still to be released. For now, the team’s big stars Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru will have their guaranteed invites to the Giro and Tour lined up, but that could change in an instant if the UCI uncovers further signs of operational “deficiencies” at Astana. The decision did not play very well on the Twitterverse, but it will give the governing body time to gather more information and potentially make a better case for taking Astana’s license in the future.

-Dane Cash

Photo by Don Barrett.

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