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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 July 2007, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
Hunt caught in Tour de France row
By Phil Sheehan

Jeremy Hunt
Hunt crosses the line in Marseille in Unibet's "compromise" shirt
When I met Jeremy Hunt in London this week he looked like a man who would rather not be here at all as the capital prepares to host the start of the Tour de France this weekend.

He could have been basking in the limelight at the Grand Depart but with his Unibet team excluded he will have to watch from the wings. The two-time former British champion's Tour dream has been crushed.

"It's been a hard two or three months," he explained, "thinking you're going to ride the Tour de France, the biggest race in the world, in your home country, only to be told you can't start. It's just so disappointing."

The root of the problem goes back to 2005 when cycling's world governing body, the UCI, launched the ProTour. Based on the Formula One model, the UCI's plan was to pit the 20 best teams against each other in its top races.

The idea was given a frosty reception by the organisers of the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, who were keen to retain control over race invitations and, more importantly, television revenue.

A compromise was reached last year when the UCI agreed to reduce the ProTour to 18 teams by 2009.

The UCI abandoned their own rules and left us out in the rain

Jacques Hanegraaf
Unibet Team Manager
The demise of the Phonak and Liberty Seguros teams at the end of last season appeared to have offered a solution ahead of time.

But the UCI quickly filled the two spots by inviting Astana and Unibet into the ProTour fold, once again putting the UCI at loggerheads with the organisers of the three Grand Tours.

ASO, the organiser of the Tour de France and a number of other high-profile races, was most vocal, and cited an obscure French law which bans the advertising of gambling as a reason to exclude Unibet, while apparently embracing Astana.

Another shaky truce between the UCI and ASO was reached on the eve of the first ProTour race of the year, Paris-Nice in March.

A month earlier, Unibet's management had tried to circumvent the gambling issue by replacing its main sponsor's name with a question mark in the GP d'Ouverture La Marseillaise, a non-ASO event which was won by Hunt.

This failed to placate the Grand Tour bosses, as did a subsequent offer to entirely drop the Unibet name and replace it with Canyon, which provides the team's bikes.

In a recent change of tack, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme declared that Unibet's exclusion was because it had failed to produce good enough results on the road.

Unibet is indeed ranked 19th in the ProTour standings but that is largely because it has missed almost half of the races on the calendar. It is also ranked above Milram, who have been invited to the Tour.

606: DEBATE
Having paid millions of euros for a four-year ProTour licence, Unibet has now resorted to the European Commission to try to resolve the impasse.

It is a tricky situation for team manager Jacques Hanegraaf. He believes the situation is being manipulated by the ASO-led organisers to destabilise the UCI, but he also thinks the UCI has failed his team.

"The UCI abandoned its own rules on 5 March by signing a new agreement with these three organisers - they just left us out in the rain," said Hanegraaf.

"We have 55 licensees - not just riders, but mechanics and soigneurs and physiotherapists. They do not understand what the International Cycling Union is doing for them."

It seems too many vested interests are at stake for a long-term solution to be found any time soon, and a sport brought to its knees by recent doping scandals is in danger of sinking even further.

In the meantime, the men in the middle like Jeremy Hunt will be left with question marks over their careers.



SEE ALSO
Unibet blasts cycling 'scandal'
17 Jun 07 |  Business
Vinokourov team gains Tour place
30 May 07 |  Cycling
Hunt to miss Olympics
11 Aug 04 |  Cycling
Hunt claims national title
01 Jul 01 |  Wales


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