Katusha: Why was the Russian team relegated?

The Katusha cycling team is facing 2013 without guaranteed entries for the biggest races on the calendar after the UCI surprisingly relegated them from the WorldTour yesterday.

As everyone waited to hear which three teams out of Saxo-Tinkoff, Argos-Shimano, FDJ or Lotto-Belisol would get the final ProTeam licences the announcement came as a surprise. All four teams were issued the all important licence as Katusha were relegated.

The decision leaves the worlds number one ranked rider Joaquím Rodríguez without guaranteed start in some of the races he won last year. The Spaniard won Flèche Wallonne and the Tour of Lombardy, and placed second in the Giro d’Italia and third in the Vuelta a España this season.

Katusha’s General Manger Viatcheslav Ekimov had previously met the UCI’s commission along with his out-going predecessor, Hans-Michael Holczer. This morning at a team camp in Marina di Bibbona, Italy, Ekimov said that he was unable to understand why the UCI’s commission rejected the team’s application. The UCI told Cycling Weekly last night that it lacks official word from the commission to issue a press release, although they did expect to announce their reasoning at some point.

The UCI’s licence commission base ProTeam licence applications on four criteria: sporting, ethical, financial and administrative. It gave some indication that Katusha faced a rocky road when on November 2 it invited the team, along with RadioShack and Movistar, to Aigle for a ‘chat’. A press release stated, “The teams … will be heard in accordance with article 2.15.071 of the regulations.”

Sporting and financially Katusha met the demands, and on October 29 the commission placed it in the top 15 teams. Katusha’s financial papers would have been in order, too. Its funding comes from Gazprom, the largest natural gas extractor, and another energy giant, Itera.

The problems are likely to have arisen on the administrative and ethical side. The commission would have balked when looking over the team’s recent managerial changes: from Andrei Tchmil, to Holczer to Ekimov in four years. Holczer indicated to Cycling Weekly after he quit in October that after he made the team work it would have trouble on its own.

The commission would have also found Katusha’s ethical record troubling. Ekimov, who spent years as Lance Armstrong’s lieutenant, is allegedly linked to the scandal as Rider-11 in the US Anti-Doping Agency’s Reasoned Decision. Denis Galimzyanov tested positive for EPO this year. Alexandr Kolobnev tested positive at last year’s Tour, later cleared, and reportedly sold the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège to Alexandre Vinokourov for £120,000.

Then there are the handful of Katusha riders – Kolobnev, Mikhail Ignatiev, Vladimir Gusev and Denis Menchov – who are entangled in the on-going Padua investigation.

The UCI told Ekimov that its licence commission would reveal its official reasoning as soon as possible. In the meantime the team is likely to register as a Professional Continental team and apply for wildcard invitations to the Grand Tours and WorldTour races.

“Everything’s possible,” the team’s head sports director, Valerio Piva told Cycling Weekly this morning. “I’m trying to do my work, but it’s hard to make plans when you don’t have guarantees to race the WorldTour races and have to ask for wildcards.”

Katusha will also want to apply to the Movement for a Credible Cycling (MPCC). The race organisers agreed that the MPCC member teams adhering to the stricter anti-doping rules will have first priority to wildcard invitations.

The team has the right to appeal the commission’s decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which is unlikely to rule in the team’s favour. Calls to the team’s press officer went unanswered, but the general feeling is that Katusha will race ahead as a second tier team.