Most of the things that have inspired me to write this week are, unfortunately, not things that make me happy. Some of them have to do -- one way or another --with money, but the first one doesn't, it comes more under the heading ofpersonal tragedy.
That, of course, can only refer to Marco Pantani and the reported end of hiscareer. He has allegedly gained 20 kilos (nearly 50 pounds), which is hard toimagine. Apparently he was hoping to make a comeback, as either a rider orsporting director with the Stayer team, but the team didn't come to be and Pantani has fallen into a "deep personal crisis." Unfortunately, that is something that he has a lot of experience with. He even spent time in a nerve clinic this summer.
He has always been a controversial rider, and a divisive one. Some fans will always remember his fabulous climbing abilities and how he was the last rider to win both the Giro and Tour in one year. But more will probably remember him for the drug rumors and trials and high hematocrite levels. These are no doubt responsible for destroying his career and plunging him from one personal crisis after the other. Did he use drugs? He is the only one who can answer that question. Does everyone believe that he used drugs? Yes. But many followers of the sport also believe that virtually all riders -- especially the successful ones -- use drugs, so why single him out? Let us remember his great rides and glorious victories, and mourn a little for the man who has had so much trouble coping with the world and his place in it.
Money makes the world go 'round, but a lack of money is causing fewer and fewer bike wheels to go 'round. For example, Kelme. The first report was that the Spanish tax authorities had frozen the team's bank accounts in a dispute over a 762,000 Euro tax bill. No problem, said Kelme, just a misunderstanding, doesn't everyone have a difference of opinion with the taxman? But there was also the nasty rumor that they were behind with salary payments, nothing new, unfortunately. Then came the more serious news on Tuesday: the riders haven't been paid since August and the UCI hasn't yet recieved the paperwork and funds that it needs for the team's 2004 license -- because the team is financially unable to meet those demands? If that continues, the riders will be free in a few days to dissolve their contracts and look for new employment.
And this although Kelme announced in September that it would continue its ponsorship for four more years! And this although Kelme is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the oldest team in cycling! And this -- unfortunately -- from a team with a long history of financial problems, from which they have always before been able to pull themselves out.
But can they do it this time? Are they too far gone? How many more chances will the UCI give them, if any?
There are rumblings from fans that Kelme has certainly received far more favorable treatment for the same transgressions than Coast did. Coast had its license suspended last year not once, but twice, and for exactly the same reasons that Kelme is now in trouble for.
Kelme has a history of not paying its riders on time, but has never lost its license for it. Are there really such great advantages to being the oldest team in the peloton and coming from such a influential cycling land as Spain? Coast was a newcomer and Germany is not nearly as much of a heavyweight in the cycling world.
We all know what happened to Team Coast -- it ran out of money, couldn't pay its riders, lost its license and became Team Bianchi. And what is happening now? Team Bianchi is not paying its riders..... They stopped paying Jan Ullrich (in August) because he announced (in October) that he would be riding for T-Mobile Team next season. But he can survive that kind of shortfall a lot better thatn many other riders. Andre Korff said that he and others hadn't yet received their October salaries.
Raphael Schweda said he had been assured that he would -- eventually -- be paid, and if not, he would simply request his portion of the team's escrow account with the UCI. Incidentally, both Korff and Schweda have found new employers for next eason, which may be why they are not afraid to talk about the problems.
The real losers are obviously the Coast-Bianchi riders. They started off the year on an uneasy note -- apparently there were already payment problems -- and then the team signed Jan Ullrich. An enormous sporting plus, but also an enormous financial burden. The the first license suspension, the failing salaries, the second suspension. The appearance of two "white knights" -- Hanegraaf and Pevenage -- willing and eager to take over the team for very little money but many promises to turn things around. At first it looked good: a new sponsor, Bianchi, was found, the Tour invitation was secured, and after Ullrich's fabulous second-place finish in the Tour, who could doubt that a new co-sponsor would soon pop up? But that sponsor just couldn't be found... and the salaries still weren't being paid on time.....
Did Hanegraaf and Pevenage really do all they could to save the team? Were they really interested in Team Bianchi or just in "Team Ullrich"? Since Ullrich announced that he was leaving the team, there seems to have been no movement at all towards continuing the team, even on a GS-II level, with Bianchi or any other sponsors. And -- no surprise -- Pevenage has once again succombed to the siren call and followed Ullrich. He admitted that he had quietly left Bianchi a while ago -- abandoning his riders and responsiblities there in a repeat of his actions of last December, when he broke his contract with Telekom, abandoning riders and team in order to concentrate on Ullrich.
No wonder the Bianchi riders are angry and bitter and anxious to have an end to the whole thing. Some have found new places on cycling teams, but no doubt for others the dream of a pro career has come to a screaming halt. No blame lies on Jan Ullrich for all of this, but much of it lies on those who used and sacrificed others in order to be associated with him. It would be hard to understand if Hanegraaf or Pevenage was ever again trusted with a postition of responsibility with another team.
NOTE: A special thanks to Karteikarte for help with the Coast-Bianchi section.