The Unibet team will not continue in 2008 after a year in which their expected presence in the top races came to nothing. What went wrong for the team that won the season's opening one-day race?
When Jeremy Hunt outsprinted Mikhail Ignatiev to take the season opening Grand Prix d'Ouverture La Marseillaise on 6 February, it looked like the perfect start to a new season for the new ProTour team Unibet.com.
There had been a cloud on the horizon, but it looked like a small one. Before the race, the team had a run-in with race organisers over a law banning advertising by foreign lottery and gambling institutions in France. The problem was solved by the team using a new jersey where the Unibet logo was replaced by a large question mark.
Now, seven months later, the 32-year-old's win remains one of the few highlights of Unibet's season and the question mark on Hunt's jersey is now hanging over his future.
Although ProTour status supposedly guaranteed a start in all three Grand Tours and every other ProTour event on the calendar, the Unibet team have spent most of the year sitting on the sidelines, watching the big races on TV, as a power struggle took place between world governing body the UCI and race organisers ASO, RCS and Unipublic.
"I had a really good start to the season," said Hunt after his neo-pro teammate Stijn Vandenbergh had taken overall victory at the inaugural Tour of Ireland. "I was 17th at Milan-San-Remo and was looking forward to the classics. I fell off, banged my knee and then all this shit's happened with the team, so... it's not been a great season!"
While the sponsor's business certainly caused the team a problem in France, it's hard not to interpret its troubles as part of the wider ongoing dispute between the UCI and the race organisers. The UCI designates teams to cycling's top rank, the ProTour. But the race promotors have never been happy that ProTour teams should get automatic entry into their races.
Recently the Swedish online gambling company announced its decision to end its €8million sponsorship of the ProTour team two years early, after the green-and-white-clad squad were prevented from riding in most of the world's biggest races this year by race organisers.
Fifty-five staff, including former British champion Hunt and 2003 Tour de France green jersey Baden Cooke are out of work at the end of the season, piling added pressure on the multi-national squad. "The end of season always puts you under pressure anyway. I've had a not-so-bad season. I'd say it's been a good season, but I'm definitely looking for a new team," says Hunt.
"The sponsor has stopped, so I've got my manager looking for a new team at the moment. I actually thought this is where I would be staying until the end of my career. Next thing you know, it's not where you're staying until the end of your career! I don't know, something's gone wrong with the team. We're not 100 percent sure who or what it is. It's a power struggle between the UCI and ASO. At the beginning of this year, I was training flat-out to ride the classics. As it turned out, my knee wasn't so good anyway. The next objective was the Tour de France. Instead, I stayed at home and trained really hard. I came out and rode Regione Wallonie... but it's not the same motivation."
The live-in-hope attitude of the team until now has led to a mish-mash race schedule, with new races having to be found for ones previously thought to be guaranteed invites. "If the team itself was organised, then we could definitely plan a lot more. But they're not organised because they don't know what they're doing. Like, they're always hoping we're gonna ride the Giro d'Italia or we're gonna ride the Tour de France. It's not the team's fault. It's not our fault. But we just can't get anything down on paper, which is what you need if you want to be going really well in races. There is a law in France, which is a good excuse. Italy and Belgium doesn't stand up. They've all just stuck together and got away with it."
Despite the fact that the team will soon be confined to the annals of cycling history, Unibet are still pulling off wins. Last week they took the Tour of Ireland with Stijn Vandenbergh. Aussie sprinter Baden Cooke, who adopted the role of super domestique for the five day race, put it down to a good atmosphere among the riders. "We're all really good mates. We get on well together. Stijn has helped me this season, so I'm more than happy to help him. The reason we race bikes is to win. That's our passion. Plus... we all need contracts at the end of the year!"
Vandenbergh, who is in the form of his life, having taken his first professional victory at the Tour of Ireland, admits he doesn't know where he will be racing next. "Probably some races in Belgium," he says. "I think... I don't know yet. This win means a lot to me. Because we've had some problems at Unibet this year. It's so stupid. We should be allowed ride the races we want to ride. Now Unibet are stopping and I will have to look for another team, but I think the team will not be as big. Perhaps we can get another sponsor, I don't know. I will wait and see what happens before I sign a contract."
Hunt agrees with Cooke's theory that the closeness of the team goes a long way towards their continued success in the face of adversity. "We've got a good bunch of guys," says the former British champ. "We like each other. I think if we were some of the other teams... we wouldn't be riding quite so well. We still want to win races. That's why we ride bikes. We don't just ride bikes for the money. If it was that way, we'd all be at home now counting our money and not racing. I signed a one year contract anyway. I think for the other guys on two year deals, they have to pay up if they don't get another contract or don't get as much money as they are on now. I think that's how it works, but I'm not 100 per cent sure."