Ast-ounding, Ast-onishing, Astana

No one in cycling today is happy about the decision by the UCI’s Licence Committee to extend Astana’s WorldTour status except Astana itself.

The team of Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali is now on probation while the UCI conducts an “audit” which imposes some conditions on its continuing participation.

This despite Italian media reports of the long running Padua investigation which claimed Astana riders have worked with banned doctor Michele Ferrari. The UCI made the decision without access to that information.

“In the case of the Astana Pro Team, this remains a very serious situation for our sport given the number of doping cases,” said UCI president Brian Cookson, who insisted the team “can be considered very much to be on probation.”

From where I sit the decision is the first real misstep by the UCI under Cookson, who has done much this year to reset the narrative of the organisation as it emerged from the eras of past presidents Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen.

The decision jarred further when placed alongside the status of Europcar, which has been denied 2015 WorldTour status because of a financial shortfall in its accounts.

“Regarding Team Europcar, it is of course regrettable that the team has not been able to secure sufficient financial guarantees to remain in the UCI WorldTour, but I very much hope that they can continue as a Professional Continental Team,” said Cookson.

Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali with Astana team boss Alexandre Vinokourov

Unlike Europcar, Astana has no problems on the cash side of things but is clearly ethically challenged under the leadership of Alexandre Vinokurov.

So in assessing the two cases, it’s a decision which appears to place money above ethics.

The optics are bad for Cookson and the UCI. The cynical among us will look at the audit by the Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne as just buying time in the hope that it will all go away, and they will probably be right.

The first rule of politics when in Government is to never call for an inquiry unless you already know the outcome. Knowing this we can guess that Astana will complete the 2015 season without penalty.

The reporting audit deadline is scheduled for February 2015, so what I cannot understand is why the UCI did not stand Astana down until then.

If an individual rider has tested positive he or she is stood down from racing until the anti-doping process is completed. In effect on probation, why not in Astana’s case?

Instead cycling fans will see the team line up for the first WorldTour race of the season in Adelaide at the Santos Tour Down Under and possibly the Tours of Qatar, Oman, Langkawi etc before the final decision is brought down.

This is an unfair situation to the teams, WorldTour, Pro Continental and Continental alike, who will no doubt be competing against Astana. Its also a slap in the face of the fans who will come out to watch.

Will anyone celebrate an Astana victory at any one of the races while the team is under “probation”? Online reaction suggests not.

In this case the UCI and Cookson desperately needed to show courageous leadership, but has instead fallen back on a cobbled together bureaucratic process, the high ground has been lost, cycling has lost.

It’s a terrible way to end a season which was filled with nothing but highlights.

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