Ben Swift's switch to TJ Sport from Team Sky might backfire if a UCI WorldTour licence is refused. The team – which could become China's first top team – cancelled a training camp this month and missed a UCI meeting yesterday in Majorca, Spain.
The team, for almost a quarter of a century known as Lampre and based in Italy, missed out on the first round of WorldTour licences a week and a half ago when all the other 17 teams received theirs. It told Cycling Weekly at the time that it had asked for a delay while it organises its papers for the UCI's licence commission.
Since then, the team cancelled a pre-season training camp that was due to be held in Tuscany and missed a UCI meeting.
"Surprised? A little bit," 29-year-old Swift from Rotherham told Cycling Weekly recently.
Swift is due to lead the team in races like Milan-San Remo and South African Louis Meintjes, eighth in this year's Tour de France, in the stage races. Other stars include Diego Ulissi, Sacha Modolo and former world champion Rui Costa.
"It was a little bit of a surprise, but it wasn't a concern because there was no panic from the team. I've been speaking with the team quite regularly and they've not mentioned anything. I've been talking about my race programme. I already have my travel plans for Australia. As far as I'm concerned, it just happened to be one of those things."
Things have changed, however. General Manager Giuseppe Saronni planned a pre-season camp in China and then changed it to Tuscany. On Monday night, the staff and team's 24 cyclists received an e-mail cancelling it so that the licence situation could take absolute focus.
TJ Sport's group will stay at home while Sky meets in Mallorca and other teams gather for camps ahead of the 2017, which starts in five weeks, on January 14, with Australia's Tour Down Under.
Perhaps due to the absolute focus, the team skipped the UCI seminar in Mallorca yesterday. It was only one of two WorldTour teams absent. Bora-Hansgrohe, the new German super team with Peter Sagan, reportedly missed it due to weather and flight problems.
Saronni has until December 15 to give the UCI's licence commission the needed documents. With ethical and sporting criteria approved, something could be wrong or missing on the financial or administrative side. Saronni sent sponsor liaison Mauro Gianetti to China last month to expedite the process.
The issue could partly stem from Saronni dealing with a government group instead of a private group. China's sports ministry reportedly created the investment group TJ Sport to promote cycling at home. Li Zhiqiang presides over the group, which according to Saronni in a September interview built up €120 million in 20 days. He said then Alibaba, J-One and Wanda Sport formed part of the group.
Some deny Wanda Sport’s involvement. The group recently launched the Tour of Guangxi, which will be the final event of 38 races on the WorldTour calendar in 2017.
Saronni has yet to identify which company could eventually become the team's name. Or perhaps it will remain TJ Sport similar to long-running team Astana, which is backed by a group of businesses in Kazakhstan.
The vagueness, missed dates and cancelled appointments "worries" some. One rival team manager told Cycling Weekly that agents already approached him about their TJ Sport cyclists in case the deal goes bad. If the commission refuses TJ Sport a WorldTour licence, then the team could apply for a spot in the lower professional division. Or the team could completely crumble like the popular panettone served during the holidays in Italy.
In the worst case scenario, the cyclists and staff – around 60 employees – would be left searching for new teams over the holidays. Only a few of the stars, like Swift and Meintjes would be able to find teams at such short notice.
Theories prevail with limited communication from Beijing or the team’s headquarters near Milan. The commission, which operates behind closed doors in Switzerland, promises sometime in late December to deliver its results. Calls to Saronni and Gianetti for this article went unanswered.
"The dossier is already not easy to follow for teams that have been filing them for many years, but we have the Chinese, and they are new and need a bit more time," a team representative told Cycling Weekly early in the process. "Also, unfortunately, the woman who is preparing the documents in China was sick and in the hospital, so there was some delay."
Representatives now say they prefer to wait until after the commission's work to comment because "it is a very delicate time and the situation is evolving."
Regardless famous manufacturer Ernesto Colnago is working hard in Cambiago to prepare the team's new bicycles. Some like Diego Ulissi have already collected theirs.
Ten of the 24 cyclists went for their medical tests this week with Doctor Roberto Corsetti so that they can receive their racing licences.
"The work must go on," Sports Director Mario Scirea said.
"I have faith in him [Saronni] in what he's done in these 25 years, though. It's not that he just decided to sign riders and then sit back and do nothing.
"Logically, though, until we have that OK we are all a little worried."
Cycling has seen licence delays before with teams Katusha and Astana. Eventually, they raced into the new season. Other teams, like Pegasus and Sony Ericsson, folded without pinning on a racing number.
UPDATE: Vegni told Cycling Weekly on Thursday afternoon that the issue was not discussed in the seminar and that the organiser is still waiting for a PCC decision. He admitted, time is running out for the 2017 season.
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Gregor Brown is an experienced cycling journalist, based in Florence, Italy. He has covered races all over the world for over a decade - following the Giro, Tour de France, and every major race since 2006. His love of cycling began with freestyle and BMX, before the 1998 Tour de France led him to a deep appreciation of the road racing season.
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