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|‘A black day for cycling’ - Wynand de Villiers|
It’s official. Robert Hunter’s 2005 team, Phonak, has been excluded from the Pro Tour next year and the team’s future hangs by a thin thread following the UCI’s controversial decision on the matter.
Not even Tyler Hamilton’s sacking last week saved the team with the UCI stating: “It emerges from the dossier and the explanations given by (UCI medial officer) Mario Zorzoli during the hearing of 22 November 2004, that on several occasions during 2004 doubts had arisen about the abnormal readings observed in the blood of certain riders in the Phonak team.” This effectively confirmed previous reports that the Phonak team had been warned about irregularities in the blood profiles of some of its riders.
Hamilton said he had hoped, "my facing the judicial process alone, apart from the team, would pave the way for Phonak being included in the Pro Tour." However, it wasn’t enough for the UCI.
The major stumbling block for the issuing of a Pro Tour license to Phonak was definitely the ongoing Hamilton and Perez blood-doping cases, and the background to them. Phonak cast doubt on the validity of the blood-doping test and assembled a team of experts to attempt to discredit it and it did them no favours with the UCI.
"Though it is not in itself contentious for a team to defend its riders when they are involved in a doping affair, at least while their guilt has not been established, the attitude of this team, which has tried to cast doubt on the validity of the tests which revealed the suspected doping in order to provide its defence, is quite another thing," said the UCI.
Another problem was the team’s breach of Pro Tour regulations regarding “image payments” to riders, which are capped at 15 percent of the rider’s salary. Phonak admitted it had signed contracts with five riders that included payments over 15 percent, claiming it had been advised by its accountants that this would be acceptable because these were renewals of existing contracts. "The regulations, known and applicable at the time that these contracts were renewed, make no distinction between renewed and completely new contracts," commented the UCI.
Hamilton said in a statement “after many discussions with team management, we concluded together that it would not be possible for the team to continue at the level we hoped with my name on the roster. Specifically, it would be impossible for Phonak to be accepted into the UCI Pro Tour with one of its riders facing charges of using prohibited performance enhancing methods.”
Hamilton said they (he and the team) had hoped that his facing of the judicial process alone, apart from the team, would pave the way for Phonak being included in the Pro Tour. “Knowing that the Phonak cycling team has done everything it could to meet the demands required by the UCI to be accepted into the Pro Tour, we were very disappointed to learn today that the team would not be included after all.
“I joined the Phonak Cycling Team in 2004 with high hopes of building one of the best teams in cycling. Together we accomplished a number of goals, namely being invited to the Tour de France in July.
“While at Phonak, I played a large role in bringing in various sponsors, riders and staff. It is out of loyalty to them and the remaining riders and staff that I accepted the premature termination of my contract which was due to expire at the end of the 2005 season.”
By stepping aside, Hamilton said, he had hoped to see the Phonak team accepted into the Pro Tour. “I also hoped to see the team carry out the long-term plans we put in place last January. While I was saddened to have to part company with a group of people I care for so deeply, it seemed this was the only way to keep the team operating and able to compete at the highest level of the sport of cycling.
“It is my hope they will still be able to accomplish this goal.
“I am very sad the challenges I face personally have had such a wide ranging impact on so many. This ordeal now affects the Phonak riders, staff, sponsors and their families. On a personal level, and on behalf of everyone involved, I am more committed than ever to getting to the bottom of all this.
“I am looking forward to the judicial process in my case and having the opportunity to prove my innocence. It is my sincere hope that once I am exonerated I can rejoin the professional peloton and the sport I love.”
Phonak also issued a statement on the matter. “It was only on November 12 that the commission worded the reasons why the provisional decision on a license on June 30 was overturned. In the end, the only decisive question was whether the team complied with the commission’s ethical standards or not. The appearance of this ethical question can be interpreted as a change in the licensing requirements. On this matter, the team was not granted a further hearing.”
On 12 November the UCI gave their reasons for Phonak’s non-compliance, and the team believe they put the correct measures in place to conform to the UCI’s expectations. "From November 12 to November 22, the questioned matters were corrected. An extensive Medical Control Programme was introduced and handed out. All contracts were modified according to the 15% rule on image contracts.
“These changes were included in the dossier before the hearing in Lausanne, as well as before the commission’s final decision. But the said decision shows that the hearing was without real importance, and that the decision had already been taken on November 12 in a final and irrevocable manner.
“This also shows that the whole matter has been treated disproportionately. Instead of definitely refusing it, the commission could have granted a restricted or provisional license. In its decision statement, the commission confirms that the measures taken were pointing in the right direction, but were taken too late according to the ethical assessment criteria. With respect to this, the commission could have honored the actions taken by the team."
Phonak called it a black day for Swiss and international cycling. “It is a fact that a great uncertainty exists for the team without the ProTour. Nobody can say today whether or not the team will get wildcards for the big stage races.
“The riders will not want to stay with the team if there’s no guarantee for participating in the great races. Bearing this in mind, it looks like the team will stick to the 2005 contracts and start to pursue race wildcards, but in the case of failure or too short notice, a step-by-step withdrawal from professional cycling may not be preventable."
The Phonak Cycling team will meet next week to discuss its situation and make further plans.
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