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Gilbert locked in legal fight with Omega Pharma CEO

MILAN (VN) — Philippe Gilbert saved his season this year with a win in the world championship road race, but faces another battle as his rainbow season opens. With his 2013 campaign set to begin in January at the Tour Down Under in Australia, Gilbert is locked in a legal dispute with his former employer.

On Monday, the Belgian spent eight hours in a Geneva arbitration court fighting for nearly $1.3 million [€1m] in bonus payments from his former team, Omega Pharma-Lotto. He sued the team’s managing company, Belgian Cycling Company (BCC), and its owner, Omega Pharma CEO Marc Coucke. BCC has counter-sued, saying Gilbert failed to respect his contract when he left for BMC Racing for 2012.

Coucke refused to comment when VeloNews called Omega Pharma’s offices today.

“Gilbert is claiming money for bonuses mentioned in the contract for winning classics,” Walter Van Steenbrugge, a lawyer for BCC told VeloNews. “But BCC is also saying that he did not respect his 2012 contract, that he should’ve been required to pay an annulment fee.”

The UCI has appointed a panel of three to rule on the case. They heard arguments from Van Steenbrugge and Gilbert’s lawyer, Jo Roseleth, this week. Roseleth was unavailable when VeloNews called for comment.

It was a sour end to a stellar season for Gilbert and Omega Pharma in 2011. Gilbert ruled nearly every major one-day race – including the Ardennes classics Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège – and wore the yellow jersey in the Tour de France after winning the opening stage. By year end, he had racked up 18 victories.

The success helped Gilbert ink a new three-year contract, 2012 to 2014, with BMC Racing at an estimated $3.94 million annually. He was able to split with Coucke and BCC one year early thanks to some fine print in his contract, or rather, too much print. The contract annulled itself because it reportedly mentioned both “Omega Pharma” and “Lotto,” and the former was leaving to link up with sponsor Quick Step. Van Steenbrugge was unable to comment on the 2012 contract to clarify due to the ongoing case.

Starting this season, the teams raced as Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Lotto-Belisol. Gilbert got off to a rocky start with BMC Racing, taking his first win in August, when at the same time last year he had already crossed the line first 16 times. He took redemption in the worlds, blasting free on the Cauberg with two kilometers remaining and taking the rainbow jersey.

Given the difficult start to this year, Gilbert is anxious to get going on the right foot in Australia. Though does not believe in the rainbow jersey’s curse, he would recognize that long court cases are burdens. He said in September, “If you are not serious in the winter then you have a bad season, so maybe it’s why the rainbow jersey has a [curse].”

The case may take some time as there are some judicial points that the arbitrators need to clarify. It is even possible that Gilbert and BCC will have to face each other again in Geneva.

Gilbert refuses even to spend his time talking about the case, according to his agent Gino Laureyssen, and has his sights on 2013, with or without an extra $1.3 million.