The Wednesday Comment


You have to sympathise with Ben Swift, who has been caught in the middle as Katusha and Team Sky jostle for his services next season.

There can be no doubt the rider wants to join Team Sky. It’s a British team, run by people he knows, and he’d be reunited with Rod Ellingworth, who was his coach at the academy. That’s before considering the possibility that Team Sky may be offering him an attractive package.

On the other hand, Katusha insist Swift signed a two-year contract when he turned professional at the start of 2009, and that he’s their man until the end of next season. Last week’s Katusha’s manager Andrei Tchmil was adamant Swift would not be leaving. After all, Swift got a two-year contract because of the UCI rules which protects new professionals from being discarded after one season. It guaranteed him two years’ pay with a major team as he learned the ropes as a pro.

That should have been the end of the matter.

However, this week Cycling Weekly spoke with Swift’s agent, Paul De Geyter, who pointed out that the rider’s terms and conditions were changed mid-season and that it effectively offers a way out of the contract.

In response to Christian Pfannberger’s positive dope test, Katusha insisted all their riders sign a charter guaranteeing they would repay an amount equivalent to five years’ salary if they tested positive. At the time The Wednesday Comment said this was not a strident anti-doping measure, but a way for Katusha’s management to pass the buck, absolving themselves of the responsibility for running a clean team and placing the onus on the riders. Katusha’s view is that the charter protected the team’s 60 riders and staff from losing their jobs if the sponsors pulled the plug. Gert Steegmans, the Belgian rider, was the highest-profile rider who refused to sign.

De Geyter said that Swift did sign the charter, which was not presented to him in English, but did so because the options were sign or stop racing immediately, although Katusha claims they gave the riders plenty of time to consider the charter and consult a lawyer or agent if necessary.

Now, it appears, the issue has become a handy tool to engineer an escape. De Geyter said Swift informed Katusha and the UCI after the World Championships in September of his desire to leave, citing the change in terms and conditions as an alteration to his contract. De Geyter also said it was a formality and only a matter of time before the UCI granted Swift his freedom. The UCI will decide if that is the case.

The matter has been played out largely behind closed doors, but the way it has spilled into the public domain has not done anyone any favours.

As always in these situations, the rider is the most vulnerable party, and you have to hope that Swift does not end up losing out.

While it is easy to understand the argument that a sportsman’s career is a short one and you never know what’s round the corner, the bottom line is that contracts should be there to be honoured, not signed and then debated later.

Of course, Katusha’s argument is weakened considerably by the fact they presented the riders with an ultimatum, sign this or else, and it’s easy to say in hindsight that Swift should not have signed the charter and should have referred the matter to the relevant authorities. It’s another issue where you have to wonder who’s actually looking out for the interests of the rider.

Team Sky’s management may well be annoyed with Katusha but British Cycling knew Swift would be signing for two years.

It seems no one has considered the PR implications of Team Sky appearing to tap up and poach a rider from another team, particularly with the Bradley Wiggins saga still rumbling on. Team Sky’s official line has been ‘no comment’, which any press and public relations expert knows is the worst possible response.

Perhaps more critically, has anyone considered how it will look if it is perceived that Swift is trying to wriggle out of his Katusha contract by opposing the anti-doping charter (however flawed it is) so that he can join Team Sky?

Swift is destined for a great future. He is a talent and he is very serious-minded about his sport. Maybe there’s no doubt he’d be better off with Team Sky in the medium to long term. But the fact is, he signed a two-year contract with Katusha. That expires at the end of 2010, and Team Sky is guaranteed to be around until at least the end of 2013. It’s not as if it’s the end of the world if Swift were to spend another season with Katusha, as long as he’s involved in the races he needs.

What would be disastrous is if he was unable to leave Katusha and spent 2010 effectively sidelined, or sent off to race in the Tour of Minor Russian Mining Villages, Tour of Chernobyl, and such like.

Judging by the number of English voices heard at Koksijde on Saturday, there must surely be the appetite for a cyclo-cross World Cup event in the UK.

Perhaps if a course could be identified in the south east, we’d even get hoardes of Belgians crossing the channel to watch.

It’s perhaps a long shot, but wouldn’t cyclo-cross be a great addition to the Winter Olympic programme? That would give the sport, which is enjoying a boom in terms of participation in this country, a massive boost because British Cycling would be able to offer funding for cross riders on the basis that there was an Olympic medal to be aimed at.

As weekends go, it doesn’t get much more spectator-friendly than a trip to the Koksijde cross followed by an evening at t’Kuipke velodrome for the Ghent Six-Day.

Both events are very well attended and it struck me that they both fit much more with the British idea of what a sporting event should offer spectators. A day at the cyclo-cross or a night at the track has much more in common with going to a football match, or the rugby or cricket, than road racing. There’s plenty of action to watch, there’s beer, hot dogs and burgers, and the people-watching opportunities are great.

Six-Day racing is in the doldrums and the future for some famous events remains unclear. The Milan Six was cancelled, this year’s Munich Six had small crowds and looks like being the last. Many of the German events have gone because the media and public have fallen out of love with cycling following a spate of doping scandals, although Berlin is still popular. The Zurich Six has a contract with the venue for the next two years, but it remains to be seen what the retirement of Swiss star Bruno Risi wil have on the event. It’s becoming increasingly rare to see the top road riders make an appearance on the track, which often helps to drive attendances.

The Ghent Six, however, is in great health. The tight 166-metre track ensures exciting racing and Patrick Sercu and his team have honed an event that blends showmanship with exciting racing. It helps that Ghent is a bustling town, with a large student population which has made Wednesday and Thursday unofficial ‘student nights’. The track is near the centre of town too, which undoubtedly helps.

One member of our group had not been to either event before, so it was interesting to get his perspective on things.

At Ghent, he managed to talk his way into being invited to ring the bell to mark the start of one of the Madison chases. He was standing near the start/finish line on the track and got talking to someone. He said he’d always wanted to visit the Ghent Six and said he’d come from Australia especially for the event, which was a bit of an exaggeration as he had recently returned to the UK after living there for a number of years.

Suitably impressed, the organisers invited him to meet legendary Belgian singer Eddy Wally, who had provided the interval entertainment and ring the trackside bell.

As he waited, he got chatting to Patrick Sercu, and perhaps betrayed his story. “So, have you had a go at this?” he asked.

“Yes,” replied Sercu. “I won it 11 times.”

“I thought he was someone from the council,” said our friend as he told his story. We pulled his leg about it afterwards, but as he pointed out, he got to meet the great Eddy Wally, was photographed shaking hands with Sercu, even if he did think he was a local politician, and rang the bell. We couldn’t argue with that.

Eddy Wally

The great Eddy Wally

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If Ivan Basso and Liquigas are correct, it looks like the Italian rider could be back at the Tour de France next year, four years after the Operacion Puerto scandal blew up.

That day in Strasbourg in 2006 really did feel like the sport was heading into an unstoppable downward spiral. Everyone was bad-tempered and nervous, no one made eye contact and there was very little joy associated with the Tour de France.

After Basso went home, CSC’s manager Bjarne Riis and his press officer Brian Nygaard, held a press conference at the Palaise de Congres, a short walk across the grass from the team’s hotel. As they made their way over, the scrum of journalists and cameramen was as intense as the atmosphere inside the press conference was tense. This was the Tour de France at its lowest ebb since the Festina Affair in 1998.

Basso’s contract was terminated by CSC, although he signed for Johan Bruyneel’s Discovery Channel and even raced for them before finally being suspended for the offence of preparing to dope. He always denied actually doping.

Nevertheless, it appeared that ASO’s new hard-line stance, adopted under Patrice Clerc, would make Basso’s return to the Tour very unlikely, even after he’d served a suspension.

Last season Basso returned to racing with Liquigas and rather than embarrass the organisers the team declined to even suggest they may pick him for the Tour. ASO did, however, allow Basso to ride one of their other events, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

So, it looks as if ASO may well be prepared to let bygones be bygones and allow Basso to ride the Tour.

And if Basso rides, presumably ASO cannot object to Alexandre Vinokourov’s participation either?

Whether the return to the highest-profile race in world cycling does the sport any good is a matter for debate, but it will be almost impossible not to think of Strasbourg ’06 and Pau ’07 should Basso and Vino ride the Tour.

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