Tour champion Nibali may require wildcard invite as Astana faces withdrawal of licence

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Despite having Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali on its roster, the Astana squad has realised that the UCI’s previous promise to keep it under close scrutiny was far from an empty one.

Following a thorough investigation of the team by the Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL), the governing body has now requested that its licence commission strip the team of its WorldTour licence in relation to a number of positive tests and the running of the squad.

In a statement issued Friday, the UCI confirmed that it had reviewed the ISSUL audit on the team plus its anti-doping culture, policies, structures and management systems. As a result of that, it believes it is in a position to act.

“After careful review of this extensive report, the UCI strongly believes that it contains compelling grounds to refer the matter to the Licence Commission and request the Astana Pro Team licence be withdrawn,” it stated.

“The UCI considers that the ISSUL audit has, among other things, 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.

“In addition, the Italian authorities have provided the UCI with the sections of the Padova investigation which it has been authorized to share. As some evidence concerns Astana Pro Team members, the file has been passed to the Licence Commission as part of this referral.”

The Astana WorldTour team was placed under scrutiny last autumn when it emerged that the brothers Maxim and Valentin Iglinskiy had both tested positive for EPO in August. The situation was exacerbated for the team when one if its stagiaries, Kazakhstan’s national champion Ilya Davidenok, was found to have traces of anabolic androgenic steroids in his system.

He had started the year as a member of the Astana Continental team. Those cases led the UCI to ask its Licence Commission to undertake a review of the WorldTour team’s licence.

Two more riders from the Continental squad, Artur Fedosseyev and Victor Okishev, subsequently also tested positive for anabolic androgenic steroids.

The five riders all waived the right to a B sample analysis, thus effectively accepting the accuracy of the A sample result.

A decision was finally announced in December, with that Licence Commission stating then that it would give a probational licence to the team.

However it stressed that the licence was subject to several conditions.

Once of those was that the team would be independently audited by the Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL) to determine “to what extent the team and or/its management is responsible of the recent events.”

It said that the audit would also seek to “assess the team’s internal structures, culture and management systems to understand whether these are adequate to ensure that the highest ethical standards are upheld.”

The audit was paid for by the team.

When the Astana squad was given the initial World Tour licence in December, it appeared to revel in the news. Journalists staying at the team hotel stated on social media that team members were drinking champagne to celebrate. It appeared to have the impression that its problems were at an end.

The team likely took encouragement from a previous attempt by the UCI to block the Katusha team’s licence prior to the 2013 season. The Russian team appealed that decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and CAS ultimately sided with the team.

Astana may decide to go the same route but there are no guarantees that CAS will back it this time around. Firstly, the commissioning of the ISSUL audit shows that the UCI has taken additional measures to scrutinise the team when compared to the Katusha situation.

Secondly, the details from the Padova investigation referred to by the UCI appear to have been a corroborating factor. It was previously reported by Italian media that links had been found between the team, or some of its riders, and the doping doctor Michele Ferrari.

While today’s UCI statement doesn’t elaborate on what evidence it was given by the Italian authorities, further details are likely to emerge over time and would be a big consideration for CAS if the team does appeal.

Providing the team is allowed compete with a Pro Continental licence, it will still be able to race in major WorldTour events including the Tour de France. However it would require wildcard invites to each of those, creating additional uncertainty for the squad.

This would mean that Vincenzo Nibali’s aim of defending his Tour de France title would either depend on such a wildcard or his moving to another team; it remains to be seen if his contract permits him to do so, and if the UCI would allow such a transfer during the season.

It also remains to be seen if there will be repercussions from Astana’s sponsors. Previous reports suggested that the doping cases could lead to a slashing of the team budget.

Astana aside, the UCI decision sends out a signal to other teams that retaining WorldTour licences is not a given, despite the previous Katusha situation.

Follow up story: What’s next for Astana? Team indicates it will fight UCI request to withdraw licence

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