Is Katusha The Victim Of Gesture Politics?

Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha finished third in this season's Vuelta a Espana

Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha finished third in this season’s Vuelta a Espana

It’s the off-season for cycling but what does that matter? After all, most of the headlines have been made away from the racing recently anyway, and you don’t need to be an enthusiast to work out what I’m referring to there. The fallout from ‘L’Affaire Armstrong’ and associated doping investigations will haunt the sport for some time yet, and of course it should. Complacency is not an option. News this week though that the Russian WorldTour team Katusha had been refused a licence to compete automatically in next year’s major events raised an eyebrow or two, particularly since the UCI have not publicly (or indeed privately) clarified their reasons for the demotion. Once again rumour will swirl around in the absence of concrete information. And whatever two and two makes, many people have already come to the obvious conclusion.

The facts are that Katusha was a very successful enterprise in 2012, finishing runners-up to Team Sky in the overall rankings and including on their roster the rider who accumulated the greatest amount of points individually. Joaquim Rodriguez might have won two Grand Tours had things worked out differently, an agonising time trial and a lapse in concentration resulting in lesser podium places, though he still had the legs to round off his campaign with victory in a wet Il Lombardia. There were wins too for Denis Menchov, Oscar Friere, Alexander Kristoff and Daniel Moreno among others. When the governing body made its initial pronouncement about future arrangements on October 29th it gave no indication that retention of status would be anything less than a formality, and Katusha duly appeared on a list of fifteen supposedly approved participants for 2013. Something appears to have changed in the intervening six weeks leaving, as it currently stands, the squad to fight for wildcard entries and throwing their plans into disarray.

So what might have caused this sudden about-turn? To qualify for the appropriate clearance teams must satisfy the authorities of their suitability in four key areas, sporting, financial, administrative and ethical. You can probably see where this is going already. The above demonstration of competitiveness should render the sporting aspect beyond question and the budget looks in rude health, funding being provided by the leading natural gas extractor Gazprom and another energy giant in Itera. Three changes of General Manager in four years hint at a certain instability, and there had been suggestions of irregularities in the paperwork, though this in itself is hardly likely to have been the pivotal factor. It seems wholly trivial when placed alongside some of the issues the UCI has had piling up on its in-tray of late. Ah, yes, those.

The new man at the helm for Katusha is one Viatcheslav Ekimov, a former Olympic gold medallist and individual pursuit World Champion who in 1997 was the first major international signing for the US Postal team. In the subsequent years he was a trusted lieutenant of Lance Armstrong during the Texan’s now discredited annexation of the Tour de France, and after his retirement stayed on at the renamed Discovery outfit as assistant to Johan Bruyneel. No longer is this regarded as the most impressive entry to have on your CV. What’s more, Ekimov is strongly suspected to be the mysterious Rider-11 in the infamous USADA report which flushed the scandal out into the open. His appointment may be regarded as unfortunate timing and not particularly sensitively handled in the current climate.

Yet that’s not all. Denis Galimzyanov tested positive for EPO out of competition in March and was suspended, claiming he had acted independently and without the knowledge of his team. Though later cleared, Alexander Golobnev gave an incriminating sample at last season’s Tour and is implicated in a race-fixing allegation that he sold the 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege to Alexandre Vinokourov for a sum in excess of £100,000. Meanwhile the soon to be concluded Padua Inquiry, centred on the rogue doctor Michele Ferrari, is highly likely to cast a dark shadow over riders such as Kolobnev, Menchov, Mikhail Ignatiev and Vladimir Husev, all current Katusha employees. With that on the horizon, small wonder that the UCI might prefer to smother the impact of another toxic integrity shredder by elbowing the only Eastern European WorldTour competitor off centre stage.

Now this may be pre-judging the outcome somewhat but you can hardly blame an organisation vilified for its abject lack of a pro-active stance to date for wishing to be seen to be doing something. Or at least that would be the case if the commission’s decision had been accompanied by an unequivocal statement that these ’ethical’ concerns were truly the decisive reason for the licence revocation. But no barrier seems to have been erected in the path to registration for UCI Professional Continental status, the second division of the cycling hierarchy. Furthermore, representatives of Movistar and Radioshack (team of Frank Schleck) were summoned to headquarters to discuss unspecified matters in November, while Saxo-Bank too have been dogged by sinister whispers, but all have been afforded the green light to continue at the top level.

 It seems that Katusha is being made a deliberate example of precisely because of their achievements in the season just ended. By hitting at such a high-profile target, and one, remember, from outside the first rank nations, the sport’s beleaguered bosses are sending a powerful message of their conversion to a policy of actually enforcing their own rules. ‘Look, you see, we do take this seriously’ they might be saying, an action which, in the first language of the peloton, could be construed as ‘pour encourager les autres’. The Russians, supported by a ‘perplexed’ President of the European Cycling Union, plan to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Their website currently states that they still await official explanation. They appear to be the latest victims of a symbolic purge, part of the necessary cleansing process, however arbitrary the practice. Of course, I might be completely wrong about all of this, but in view of their barely credible record on vigilance and communication, I surely cannot be alone in thinking the UCI may not be fit for purpose in pursuing this Herculean task.

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