By Gregor Brown
World-number-one Joaquím Rodríguez is planning to leave Katusha in order to secure a ride in WorldTour events. After the Russian team lost its first ProTeam licence, his only choice seems be jumping ship with Argos-Shimano leading the race to gain his signature.
"If Katusha is not in the WorldTour, I'll change teams because I don't want to take a step back," Rodríguez told Spain's Marca newspaper. "I don't think I deserve it. I'd be heart-broken to leave the team, [it's] a big family, but there's no other remedy because I must look after my future."
Only the 18 first division ProTeams have guaranteed entry into the Tour de France and other WorldTour events. Katusha lost its golden ticket on December 10 when the UCI's licence commission excluded it from the top ranks for 2013. The commission selected the final four ProTeams, renewing Lotto-Belisol's, FDJ's and Saxo-Tinkoff's licences, promoting Argos-Shimano, but relegating Katusha.
The Russian team has so far refused to say exactly why it lost it's licence (the UCI has not made it's decision public), but the commission likely frowned upon the team's ethical/doping record: four positives and numerous links in four years.
New General Manager Viatcheslav Ekimov - with his own links to the Lance Armstrong scandal - helped appeal the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The high court told Cycling Weekly it received the appeal, but it has yet to communicate a hearing date.
Rodríguez placed on top of the UCI's WorldTour rankings this year ahead of Brad Wiggins thanks to a spectacular season. He won classics Flèche Wallonne and the Tour of Lombardy and placed second in the Giro d'Italia and third in the Vuelta a España.
This year's Tour de France suits him more than last year's. With his goal to wear the famous yellow jersey and win 100-year-old race, the 33-year-old feels the time ticking away.
"The route is more mountainous and has less time trial kilometres than usual, adapting perfectly to my strengths. I don't know when we will see another edition like this," Rodríguez continued. "Even if I end up seventh, my goal is to win it. I just want to leave the Tour with the feeling of having given it everything and having had no problems."
Katusha could apply for a second division licence and rely on wildcard invitations to the big WorldTour events. With its WorldTour points, it should easily receive invitations to race to several classics, the Vuelta a España and the Giro d'Italia. Ekimov, however, said last week at the team presentation that there is no plan B or second division application.
"We only have a plan A and we are pushing ahead with it," Ekimov said. "We are only asking to have the licence which belongs to us."
The plan and risk of losing his chance to race in the Tour and other big races makes Rodríguez nervous. He said he would wait until CAS hears the team's appeal, but his agent, Angel Edo has reportedly already secured him a place with new first division team, Argos-Shimano.
Argos team representatives would not comment, but they would agree they need a Grand Tour rider. They have German sprint stars John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel and last year's Tour de l'Avenir winner, 21-year-old Warren Barguil. Rodríguez, with this year's results, has proven capable of winning.
Rodríguez told Marca he has had offers and would just need the approval of the UCI to make the change official.
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