The new Sony Ericsson team headed up by cycling legend Giancarlo Ferretti looks to be on the verge of collapsing.
The veteran Italian team manager is reportedly in Sweden for emergency meetings with Ericsson officials after it was learned that high-level officials were threatening to pull the plug on the recently announced six-year deal to sponsor the team.
In fact, the mobile communications giant couldn’t have put it more bluntly Friday on its web page.
“There have been a number of press reports across Europe speculating that Sony Ericsson will sponsor a cycling team. Sony Ericsson can confirm that these reports are not true and we have no intention to be involved in sponsoring such a team,” the press statement read.
Word first spread at Thursday’s Giro del Piemonte that the contract between Ferretti and Sony Ericsson was not cast-iron. La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that an intermediary between the team and Italian Sony Ericsson subsidiaries failed to run the proposal past the highest levels of the multinational mobile-phone giant.
The news comes as a major blow to Ferretti, who scrambled to find a new sponsor after Fassa Bortolo announced it was ending its long-running sponsorship at the end of the 2005 season. In the wake of the uncertainty of the team’s future, several top riders left to find a new team, sprint star Alessandro Petacchi among them.
Ferretti seemed to have found a savoir in Sony Ericsson, announcing a big-dollar, six-year deal and quickly set about filling up the team. Riders who signed up included Stuart O’Grady, Gilberto Simoni and Carlos Garcia Quesada.
The dramatic flameout will leave one ProTour slot open to several teams vying to try to get into cycling’s new super-league. Ferretti held a one-year ProTour license for 2005 with the option to continue if he could find a new sponsor.
With the likely departure of Ferretti’s team, other teams such as Ag2r, Comunidad Valenciana, Agritubel and Naturino-Sapore will be hoping to move into the ProTour.
Italians duke it out in Lombardia
Italians are the top favorites for the Giro di Lombardia, the final big contest of the 2005 European racing season and closing race of the inaugural ProTour series.
While a handful of foreign riders will be keen to make their presence felt, Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), Gilberto Simoni (Lampre-Caffita) and Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi) will be the marquee contenders in the hilly, 246km fall classic.
The 99th edition of the so-called “race of the falling leaves” begins in Mendrisio, Switzerland, and loops around the hilly country along Lake Como before finishing in the town of Como on the south end of the lake.
The course is sprinkled with climbs, including three sharp ascents in the final 40km that are sure to separate the wheat from the chaff. The Madonna del Ghisallo climb at 204km is followed by the Civiglio (at 230km) and the San Fermo di Battaglia (at 240km) before a fast run into Como.
Defending champion Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Caffita) will take the start, but he’s been battling illness for much of the 2005 season and the team instead will be backing a motivated Simoni. The two-time Giro champion is on form following a win at the Giro dell’Emilia last weekend.
Also riding for revenge will be Bettini, a winner at the Championship of Zürich two weeks ago. Bettini’s also been marred with illness early in the 2005 season and a string of bad luck, including a frustrating ride at the Madrid world’s last month.
Di Luca has the green light to start despite knee problems that prompted his early departure from Paris-Tours last weekend. Di Luca already has the ProTour individual title under wraps, but pride will bring the best out of him.
Davide Rebellin will lead Gerolsteiner, but teammate Fabian Wegmann, strong in the Madrid world’s, could well be team leader come race day. Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Frank Schleck (CSC), second at the Championship of Zurich, could shine on the bumpy course.
There’s a gang of Spanish riders who could surprise the Italians, including the Illes Balears tandem with Alejandro Valverde and Francisco Mancebo, Oscar Sevilla (T-Mobile) and Carlos Sastre (CSC).
Americans lining up for the season finale include Chris Horner (Saunier Duval), Christian Vande Velde (CSC) and Saul Raisin (Crédit Agricole).
Godefroot moving on
After 40 years in the world of professional bike racing, T-Mobile team manager Walter Godefroot is walking away from the sport that he’s been a player at every level.
“At 62, after so many years at the highest level, I feel the need to be tranquil, not be at the beck and call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Godefroot told Reuters.
Godefroot turned pro in 1965 and rode 15 years as a professional. He was part of a generation of Belgian riders that also delivered Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and Freddy Maertens.
After retiring in 1979, he bounced around different teams as a sport director, including Lotto, before joining Telekom (now T-Mobile). As team manager of the Telekom team, Godefroot helped nurse the careers of a generation of German riders, including Jan Ullrich, Erik Zabel, Steffen Wesemann, Udo Bölts and Rolf Aldag.
He led Telekom to consecutive Tour de France victories with Bjarne Riis in 1996 and Ullrich in 1997, but was never able to beat Lance Armstrong when the Texan rose to prominence in 1999.
With Godefroot’s departure, Olaf Ludwig will take over as T-Mobile team manager.
Changes likely in ProTour points
Rider complaints that the ProTour points system is unjust seems to have not gone unheeded. UCI officials are leaning toward changing the current points system, which is skewed against victories in stage races.
Under current rules, a stage win in one of the grand tours only earns three points while a victory at a one-day race such as the GP Plouay is worth 40 points.
New rules expected to be rolled out next year call for 10 points for a stage win at the Tour de France (eight for the Vuelta or Giro) while stage wins at shorter races, such as Paris-Nice, will earn three points.
One more season for Laiseka
Veteran rider Roberto Laiseka will ride at least one more year for Euskaltel-Euskadi after reaching an accord to continue with the Basque team. The 36-year-old turned pro in 1994 and is the only active rider from the original Euskadi debut team that same year.
Laiseka has five career victories, including an emotional stage in the 2001 Tour de France and a stage to Cerler in this year’s Vuelta. Markel Irizar and Aketza Peña have also signed one-year contract extensions with the Basque team.