Gazprom-RusVelo, 2017 team launch. Photo: LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2017

Inside the struggle to save Gazprom-RusVelo

As war rages, a team – and Russian cycling itself – is on the brink of collapse. Do they deserve salvation?

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A month on, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine continues to send ripples around the world. The war has affected many things – millions of lives, petrol prices, food prices, political relationships – and it has affected the sport of cycling, too. 

As CyclingTips has reported at length, the gaze of the world’s sporting institutions has fallen on Russian athletes and institutions. The International Cycling Union (UCI) has imposed sanctions – sometimes haphazardly – on teams and riders representing Russia, or Russian sponsors. 

Perhaps the highest profile casualty of that has been the second-division Gazprom-RusVelo team, who in the space of a week went from winning a WorldTour stage in the UAE – with Czech rider Mathias Vacek – to being banned from racing.  

Mathias Vacek celebrates winning stage 6 of the UAE Tour, February 25 2022 – the day after Russia invaded Ukraine. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

In the weeks since, the team formerly known as Gazprom-RusVelo has been scrambling to find sponsors to keep the lights on. Team manager Renat Khamidulin has set a deadline of March 27 – this Sunday – to secure the €3.5-4 million in sponsorship that would allow the team to make it to the end of the year.

That’s a hefty financial hurdle, but there are more barriers that need to be cleared: if it can secure funding, the team’s re-registration needs to come within the UCI’s parameters of a changed country of registration, no Russian or Belarusian sponsors, and a new bank guarantee. 

In a context where alignment with a Russian entity – or even something that looks like it might be a Russian entity – is a potential PR disaster in the making, that is a narrow tightrope to walk. 

Shades of grey in the black and white

As my colleague Joe Lindsey noted, the UCI’s action – which, for the UCI, was strong and swiftly taken – was simultaneously incomplete and incoherent. Management committee members – most notably including Russian oligarch Igor Makarov, one of the most powerful, mysterious figures in the sport – are allowed to continue serving in their roles. Meanwhile, Russian and Belarusian teams have been banned on the basis of their country of registration. 

Pro cycling teams, however, are not national institutions, and strict application of this rule can at times veer towards absurdity. One of the casualties of the UCI’s broad brush, for example, is a Ukrainian cyclist on the roster of a banned Belarusian team. Meanwhile, Russian riders racing for German teams, for example, have sailed through without question.

Gazprom-RusVelo is another such example of this inconsistency – the team’s 21 rider roster includes nine Russians, but that’s still a minority of the whole, which is made up of seven Italians, two Czechs, a Norwegian, a Spaniard and a Costa Rican.  

The team’s line-up at the UAE Tour featured an Italian and two Czech riders, with the remainder from Russia. (Photo: Luca Bettini/RB/Cor Vos)

Speaking to CyclingTips on Wednesday, Khamidulin said that the team saw the writing on the wall soon after the invasion began and sanctions began to come down. A thus-far futile attempt for salvation was launched.

[As a sign of how quickly things fell apart for Gazprom-RusVelo, as of February 25 the team told CyclingTips that “we are certain that there will be no difficulties” for “its riders of various nationalities” to “continue their professional type of activity”, despite sanctions against its naming rights sponsor. The team was banned by March 1.]

“On 28th of February we tried to approach the UCI and proposed competing under a neutral status – but at that moment it was clear that the UCI was not there for the dialogue,” Khamidulin said. “They were not really listening to us. Unfortunately we didn’t have a real clear explanation of why this happened to us.” 

For the Gazprom-RusVelo management – or rather, the management of the nameless entity that used to be Gazprom-RusVelo – the international composition of the roster meant that the UCI sanctions felt particularly capricious. “We are really an international team,” Khamidulin said. “We have 21 riders who became professionals and dedicated their lives to this – like [Italian rider] Marco Canola, for example. There is no explanation one way or another why he lost his job.”

From Khamidulin’s perspective, the team had been proactive in trying to salvage its future. “As Russians, we were trying to take responsibility. We were ready to take off the old jersey and change the name and the country of registration of the team,” he says. “But unfortunately [the UCI] didn’t even provide us a little chance for dialogue.”

An uncomfortable ethical dilemma lies at the core of the sanctions against Russia that Gazprom-RusVelo have found themselves bundled into. Those sanctions are imposed because Russia’s horrific actions in Ukraine need to be condemned – they are an attempt to apply pressure to the institutions, the oligarchs, and the people of Russia, with the hope that pressure might in turn divert the country from its destructive path. 

Because of Russia’s actions, life is measurably – and appallingly – worse for an entire nation of 44 million people. Because of the global response to Russia’s actions, life is going to get measurably tougher for millions of Russians. And in the seismic geopolitical sweep of that, a Russian-flagged cycling team and the riders that are signed to it – Russian, Italian, Costa Rican – are caught in a bind that is not of its choosing. Broad brushes are imprecise tools.

For some, the team’s alignment through sponsorship to energy giant Gazprom – an enabler of Putin – will be reason enough for it to be barred from the sport. For some, the team’s former connection with the Makarov-helmed Russian Global Cycling Project will be the tipping point [Khamidulin claims that the project collapsed in 2016]. For some, the very fact that they are Russian at all condemns them to a purgatory on the outside of cycling, looking in.

But it’s worth remembering that there are millions of Russians that did not choose this fight, and do not support the oppressor that presides over them – and they deserve humanity, too.

Nikolai Cherkasov at the 2020 Vuelta a Burgos. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

“Something is wrong with this decision”

As for Khamidulin – he agrees that action needs to be taken against Russia. “We are sure that the UCI should take some measures regarding the Russian athletes and Russian teams,” he says. “There are no alternatives to the decision that there should be no events in Russia. That’s totally fine. There were no alternatives to that. 

“No national teams in UCI competition – European Championships, World Championships, World Cup – that’s understandable,” Khamidulin continued. “But in our case we have some half decisions – there were other teams affected by the UCI, and those teams simply changed the team name and they’re competing right now [ed. the Continental team Vozrozhdenie is still competing under another name; it is helmed by the Honored Coach of Russia.] [Since the UCI ban], Russian riders won international races in Turkey. Another rider from Russia won a race in Spain. Aleksandr Vlasov continued racing for Bora-Hansgrohe. But Marco Canola today is not racing. Something is wrong with this decision, because it’s not clear.”

“This situation has demonstrated to us that a team, and riders, are not really protected – they do not bring any value for the UCI. People are not protected by the governing body,” Khamidulin said. It is, he said, an “abuse of the UCI’s power.”

“Our hope was to have negotiations and find a solution with the UCI, and when we saw their decision – we will not hide that we were surprised or that it was a shock. That was a really, really horrible day for us,” Khamidulin said.

There’s a palpable sense of weariness and a hint of anger bubbling beneath the surface during our conversation, and it is apparent that there’s frustration at the UCI stonewalling the team’s attempts to survive, and cutting the prospect of lifelines. As the team folded, non-Russian riders including the Czech rider, Vacek, were contacted by WorldTour teams to sign elsewhere, but, Khamidulin believes, were “blocked” by the UCI’s transfer window and roster size regulations. 

Meanwhile, time is running out for Khamidulin’s team, and when the alarm goes off at the end of the week there will be flow-on effects. Khamidulin spells it out: “52 employees of the team, including riders. 164 people in total who will be affected by this – including families and people who are dependent on the budget that is coming from this work.”

The team has received one offer from a prospective sponsor – Khamidulin didn’t say who – but the team passed on it because it seemed ethically dubious and they didn’t believe it would get through the UCI’s checks and balances. “We don’t want a victory at any cost … In Russian, that is a saying – but we don’t want to follow it,” he said. 

That is, perhaps, reflective of an outward-looking perspective on the world – in direct opposition to a Russia that is withdrawing from it.

Khamidulin has been resident in Italy since 2012, but “I remain a Russian citizen and holder of a Russian passport. If you’re talking about a professional cycling team, it is never about one country – not Italy, not Russia.

“One of the principles of the team is the sport itself; to erase borders. People from different backgrounds and different nationalities are working together towards one goal, doing the best everyone can, together. Sport erases borders and should be for that – but the governing body of the sport seems to have forgotten about that,” Khamidulin lamented.

Russian champion Artenm Nych driving the pace at the 2022 Tour of Antalya. (Photo: Brian Hodes/Cor Vos)

A nation withdrawing

As the days and the hours tick down, and as salvation for this cycling team looks ever less likely, the team is an avatar for bigger questions about what the future of cycling in Russia looks like.

In the wake of the UCI sanctions, the Russian Cycling Federation announced its plans to “strengthen the internal Russian calendar and work out how to hold races deprived of international status in the format of Russian starts.”

There is no hope for Russian riders in that, Khamidulin told me. 

“We’ve seen [the Federation’s] position – that we are even talking about that, that is a clear problem,” Khamidulin said, scornfully. “There is no strategic thinking. If they are thinking in this way – if there is a new Pogačar in Russia, he will never have his opportunity.” 

The solution is a cycling team with ties to Russia that can bring the country to the world, Khamidulin believes – a team like his. He cites as an example the former Gazprom-rider Aleksandr Vlasov, who finished fourth at the 2021 Giro d’Italia and 2nd at the 2021 Paris-Nice. “Vlasov was not discovered when he was young in Russia. He was not needed [by] anyone in Russia. We brought him to Italy … after four years, he won the under 23 Giro. Now he is one of the leading riders for stage races. And then you think that if there wasn’t any team like our team, what would have happened to Vlasov?”

Ilnur Zakarin was set to finish his career with Gazprom-RusVelo in 2022. He is a former Tour de France and Giro d’Italia stage winner, and finished third overall at the 2017 Vuelta a España. This year he crashed out of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana – a DNF that is looking increasingly likely to be his final result as a professional cyclist. (Photo: Luis Angel Gomez/Cor Vos)

A present to cycling

Towards the end of our call, Khamidulin and the team’s PR officer take me for a virtual tour of the team’s service course, a 1,250 m² facility on the shores of Lake Garda, Italy. It’s a big, polished-looking space. There’s a finance office, meeting rooms, logistics office, and a mezzanine looking over a hangar-like space. Ringing the wall is the red, white and blue of the Russian flag. 

Down the stairs we go. I’m shown the bike storage facility. 200 bikes and at least twice as many wheelsets stretch the length of a long, long room. There’s a storage room with boxes of cycling kit to the ceiling on three walls; Gazprom kit that will never – can never – be worn. Next to it there’s a room with 25,000 water bottles, slabs upon pallets. 

As we walk through the warehouse, I’m shown half a dozen white Volkswagen station wagons – cars that once were blue with the team’s strip, and now are stripped bare, waiting for their next incarnation. The existential threat to the team’s existence is clear. If the team falls, with it will go what was built over 10 sometimes turbulent years. 

“I don’t need any money for this structure,” Khamidulin says, half pleading. “I want only one thing: this team, racing for the future for all these 21 riders. This team, with a new message of peace. I want to present it and dedicate to it myself – not only with Russia and Belarusia, but new connections.”

That existential threat to the team – it’s a threat to what Renat Khamidulin built, but it’s bigger than that. It’s a metaphor for what could await Russian cycling, or Russia itself.

“In Russia, there is no-one able to do this right now. And one day, we will face the situation of needing to make a life again,” he says. “This team will be my present to its sponsor.”

With days left until the clock runs out, there’s surely a question that is haunting the team’s management and riders: does anyone want that present?

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