Between a rock and a hard place

The rumours that have been swirling around the internet are true, the Spanish Cycling Federation has handed Alberto Contador a one-year ban.  Subject to the outcome of any appeal, this means he’ll be stripped of last year’s Tour win and won’t be able to ride again competitively until 24 August 2011.

The problem for Contador is what to do next? He did say he would retire if he received any sort of ban. Was this a hollow threat? Will he really retire? I think this depends on how much money he’s already made. He comes from a very humble background and he may have already made enough money to look after his family. After all, you don’t see him flashing the cash on fast cars and flashy watches, but somehow I doubt it.

So if he’s not going to retire, should he appeal the ban? If he doesn’t, will AMA and UCI appeal the ban, feeling that 12 months is too lenient? They might do as they’ve never appeared all that convinced by the contaminated meat story. However, from a political perspective, the UCI will not want this story to drag on and obscure the 2011 season. Should they take a reasonable or outraged stance? There’s little way of knowing.

Here’s Contador’s quandary. If he doesn’t appeal but UCI/AMA do, he runs the risk that the ban might be lifted to two years. If he doesn’t appeal, then maybe neither will UCI/AMA. It’s a tricky one and I’ve no doubt that while on the Saxo Bank-Sungard training camp in Majorca he’s having his ear bent. He won’t, and doesn’t need to, do anything hasty. Alberto’s not a gambler, he’s much more calculating. He’ll take the full amount of time to consider his options, weigh up the risks and talk it through with those whose opinions he values.

Given Pat McQuaid’s initial sensitivity to this issue, I would definitely try to have an off the cuff discussion to gauge which way the wind is blowing. The best for all concerned might well be to accept the one-year ban. 

Only Alberto knows what really happened. If the contaminated meat story is true, it seems an unreasonably harsh outcome. If the contaminated meat story isn’t true and the clenbuterol, however small, got there by way of more nefarious methods, then a one-year ban isn’t a bad result. Either way, we’ll never know.

Friday postscript: In today’s press conference, Alberto claims that he will appeal the proposed ban and is prepared to fight to clear his name. Of course, the cynics may say that they’ve heard it all before and cite the case of Landis who protested his innocence before finally admitting he did indeed dope. This is a brave move on the part of Alberto who claims that he has never, ever doped. If that’s truly the case Alberto, I wish you the best of luck in your defence.

Opacity obscures objectivity

A certain amount of disquiet is being expressed in the French sporting press about the UCI’s new ranking system for the 2011 cycling season. For the first time the UCI is using a deliberately “secret” system which takes the points earned in the two preceding seasons by each team’s top 15 riders plus some consideration of the team’s ranking in Grand Tour events. The end ranking guarantees entry for the top 15 teams to cycling’s 1st Division providing said teams meet the UCI commission’s ethical, financial and administrative criteria. These are rather more clear cut as they’re set out in the UCI’s Rules and Regulations. The remaining spots will go to 3 of the 5 teams ranked 16-20th: namely, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Geox-TMC, Quickstep, Cofidis and AG2R.

The French are concerned and I’ll explain why. If we look at the teams in turn. FDJ is 21st therefore, under the new system, it is automatically denied entry to the 1st Division. Bbox, along with Cofidis, were relegated last year and have decided to remain in the 2nd Division with their new sponsor Europcar. I assume they’re gambling that with the Tour starting next year in their backyard (Vendee), they’ll get a wild-card. Cofidis and AG2R are fighting it out for the remaining slots. It’s possible, though unlikely, that if neither Cofidis nor AG2R are successful that France (horror of horrors) will not have a team in the 1st Division.

The press are talking about parallels with football because French clubs, who have to balance their books, and have small budgets, constantly lose their best players to clubs in England, Spain, Italy and Germany which have greater wherewithal. By and large, those cycling teams with small budgets are unable to attract the better paid, big point’s scorers.

The UCI made a preliminary announcement on 3 November confirming the 1st Division status of Omega-Pharma Lotto, Garmin-Cervelo, Rabobank and Team Sky. The other 11 teams (in order) are:

  • Unnamed Schleck Luxembourg Team
  • HTC-Highroad
  • Lampre-ISD
  • Katusha
  • Liquigas-Cannondale
  • Saxo Bank SunGard
  • Radioshack
  • Vacansoleil – DCM
  • Astana
  • Moviestar
  • BMC

The definitive list will be published on 20 November.

You can understand the concerns of  management of the individual teams. When seeking sponsorship they cannot give potential sponsors certainty that the team will be present at the prestigious events. I was involved in a project last year with a group of potential sponsors. While they wanted to enter initially at the Continental-Pro level, their long-term aim was Pro-Tour status and “guaranteed” entry into the all important Tour de France. After significant ground work and due diligence, my advice to the potential sponsors was to co-sponsor an existing Pro-Tour team. While this doesn’t afford them the  same level of involvement and control, it does give them exposure at the desired level.

Postscript: UCI announced today, 22 November, that the two teams to lose out in the battle for a place in the 1st division are Geox (with Sastre and Menchov) and Cofidis. The French can heave a sigh of relief that they have one team (AG2R) in the 1st Division.

It’s probably safe to assume that when it comes Grand tour wild cards, preference will be given to domestic teams. So, if you’re a 2nd Division side, from a country other than France, Spain or Italy, it’s unlikely you’ll be riding any of the Grand Tours. Progression into the upper echelons won’t be easy without a big budget to buy in those stars who have earned plenty of points in the preceding seasons. However, I do worry that the increased pressure to win could have unfortunate side-effects.