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MILAN (VN) — Joaquím Rodríguez is free to leave Katusha after the UCI denied the team first-division status on Monday. The rider ranked No. 1 in the world already said earlier this year that he is unhappy with the team.
Late Monday afternoon in Switzerland, the UCI’s license commission announced the 18 teams to race in next year’s first division, or ProTeam. Dutch squad Argos-Shimano received a deserved promotion, while Russia’s Katusha team was knocked down following four years with a first-division license.
The cut surprised many. Insiders believed that Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank would be axed after recent doping scandals and placing dead last in a ranked list of 20 teams.
“We are all surprised,” Katusha’s head sports director, Valerio Piva told VeloNews. “It was a big surprise for all of us, there was no sort of signal. They didn’t tell [general manager Viatcheslav Ekimov] why. It’s not great for him to get the news from a press release.”
The press release stated that the license commission granted Saxo Bank a license for 2013 and 2014. The commission also put Katusha, which had a license through 2015, in limbo. It stated that according to UCI rules, the team’s application would be forwarded and assessed for a second-division license. The UCI has yet to say when it will confirm all the second-division licenses, only stating it would be at a “later date.”
According to UCI rules, riders in a non-registered team are free to leave, and without penalty. This opens the door for Rodríguez, who sits on top of the UCI’s and CQ Ranking’s tallies for 2012. The 33-year-old Spaniard won the Flèche Wallonne and Lombardia one-day classics. He lost the Giro d’Italia to Ryder Hesjedal on the last day by 16 seconds and placed third in the Vuelta a España.
After his Lombardia win September 29, he said he was unhappy with the team.
“They have their ideas, I have mine,” Rodríguez said. “I am racing with my group of guys, the boys are happy. It’s up to them [the management] to do their work, but, up until now, they haven’t done it. I will be with Katusha through next year, but if they keep thinking the way they are, for sure I won’t be with them in 2014.”
Rodríguez renegotiated last December, signed an extended contract through 2013 in April and kept his valuable WorldTour points in the team. Those points helped Katusha when the license commission examined its sporting record, but were of no use in the other three criteria examined: financial, administrative and ethical.
With rich Russian backers, Katusha stands on firm financial ground. The commission would have questioned its administrative dealings — three GMs in four years — and ethical history. Ekimov, who rode at Lance Armstrong’s side for many years, is allegedly linked to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation. Plus, Katusha riders have tested positive and been linked to the Padua investigation.
Hans-Michael Holczer, Ekimov’s predecessor, indicated to VeloNews in October that he quit the team because he was unhappy. Now, the team seems to be unraveling and allowing its stars an easy exit.
Its 28 riders, save Rodríguez, are training through December 18 in Marina di Bibbona, Italy. Rodríguez traveled home to receive an award.
“I prefer not to say anything,” he said at the ceremony, according to Biciciclismo. “Everything we say can go against us. Hopefully the [license] is resolved.”
If Rodríguez were to take the easy exit, he would have to arrange a deal for his Spanish helpers Dani Moreno, Alberto Losada, Xavier Florencio and Angel Vicioso. Such a deal would be difficult this late in the season. He would also have to be willing to negotiate for less because teams know he is in a bind.
His future — in fact, the entire team’s future — is left for a “later date,” likely before Christmas.