Astana crisis deepens: What happens now?

What could the future hold for Kazakh team Astana after doping cases and allegations of dealings with Dr Ferrari?

The UCI requested today the that WorldTour licence belonging to the Astana team of Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali be withdrawn.

Following the conclusion of an audit into the team’s anti-doping policies and management by the Institute of Sports Sciences at the University of Lausanne (ISSUL), and having obtained material from the Italian authorities involved in the Padova investigation, cycling’s governing body has referred the issue back to its Licence Commission.

The position of the Kazakh team in the WorldTour has been under threat since December, when positive dope tests were followed by fresh allegations of dealings with banned ‘doping doctor’ Michele Ferrari.

Awarding the team a licence in 2014, the UCI explained the team was very much on probation. Now though, subject to the decision of the Licence Commission, it looks like the team’s place in the WorldTour this season is about to disappear.

Why is Astana in trouble?

The Astana WorldTour team provided two positive anti-doping tests during the 2014 season, for brothers Maxim and Valentin Iglinskiy. Both tested positive for banned blood booster EPO. In addition, three riders from the Astana Continental Team also tested positive last season. Although the WorldTour team denies any links between the two squads, they do share a number of staff and sponsors.

There’s also the on-going case of Roman Kreuziger’s biological passport anomalies whilst riding for the team during 2011 and 2012, and Astana’s general manager Alexandre Vinokourov is still under investigation for allegedly bribing Alexandr Kolobnev so he could win Liege-Bastoge-Liege in 2010. Vinokourov was previously banned for blood transfusions after testing positive during the 2007 Tour de France.

In December, shortly before the initial decision to award the team a WorldTour licence, Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that it had received photographs showing the squad’s members with banned medic Dr Michele Ferrari at a team training camp in November 2013.

Ferrari was given a lifetime ban from any involvement in professional cycling in 2012 by the United States Anti-Doping Agency for his part in organised doping within the US Postal team of Lance Armstrong.

These are far from the only eyebrow-raising incidents in the team’s chequered history in the sport.

Having awarded the team a WorldTour licence for 2015 based on the recommendations of its Licence Commission, the UCI commissioned the ISSUL audit into “the team’s internal structures, culture and management systems to understand whether these are adequate to ensure that the highest ethical standards are upheld.”

Who decides whether Astana can continue to race in the WorldTour?

Whether Astana are awarded a licence to race in the 2015 World Tour is down to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Licence Commission. In December 2014, the Commission granted the team a licence to race in the WorldTour despite concerns over its anti-doping practices and management.

The same Commission will now be presented with the report from ISSUL and additional material from the Padova investigation. The UCI believes that this additional evidence has revealed “a big difference between the policies and structures that the team presented to the Licence Commission in December and the reality on the ground.”

The UCI also believes the new evidence and information will result in the Commission chosing to rescind Astana’s WorldTour licence.

What if Astana doesn’t have a WorldTour licence?

Is Astana has its WorldTour licence rescinded, then the team will not have automatic entry into the world’s biggest bike races, including the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Paris-Roubaix and many others. It is possible it would then have its application forwarded to ride in the second tier, Professional Continental calendar, but this would also have to be approved by the UCI’s Licence Commission. Pro Conti teams can still get into some of the big races by being selected as a wildcard team.

UCI president Brian Cookson told Cycling Weekly in December: “Subjective to what the licence commission might decide, a minimum sanction could be that the team could be reduced to the Pro Continental level and be dependent on wildcards for the WorldTour races. A maximum sanction could be that the team’s licence would be removed all together.”

If the team doesn’t get a Pro Conti licence either… well, it cannot race and it’s in serious trouble. If it does get a WorldTour licence, then there will be serious questions asked of the UCI, the report from the University of Lausanne, and indeed the Licence Commission.

What would happen to Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali?

Astana won the 2014 Tour de France with Vincenzo Nibali, and the Italian is contracted with the team for 2015. However, Nibali has a clause in his contract that states if Astana are no longer in the WorldTour or handed a Pro Continental licence then he is free to leave. It is possible he may also take ‘his’ key staff and a couple of support riders with him, depending on their contracts too.

Where would Nibali go?

If Nibali left Astana, then he would be free to join another team. However, there are question marks at this stage of the year whether any teams have the necessary budget or space in their roster to sign and support the reigning Tour de France champion. Most of the big teams already have one or two general classification riders, and simply do not have room for another one.

What about the other riders?

It’s already a market saturated with riders. With Europcar missing out on a WorldTour roster due to financial grounds, Astana’s demotion from the WorldTour could leave just 16 top tier teams.

2011 Tour of Flanders winner Nick Nuyens retired last season after failing to find a contract for 2015. 

It’s unlikely that all of Astana’s 30 man roster will have exit clauses written into their contracts and for the rank and file of the Kazakh team this will be a particularly worrying time. Spare a thought too for the team staff such as mechanics, soigneurs bus drivers and press officers.

Has this happened before? What could Astana do about it?

Yes. The Katusha team was initially excluded from the 2013 WorldTour having failed to meet the UCI’s criteria, and its application was put forward to be registered as a Professional Continental team. Katusha subsequently appealed against the UCI’s decision to sport’s high court, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and won. They were reinstated into the WorldTour in February 2013.

If Astana is not awarded a WorldTour licence for 2015, it could follow the same path as Katusha and appeal to CAS. However this could be a lengthy and costly process, and this time the UCI appears confident that any decision would stand up to legal scrutiny at CAS.