A change in leadership within the ONCE organisation could result in the cycling team being forced to fold at the end of this season instead of at the end of 2004 as was previously indicated. Rumours were circulating during the final days of the Tour de France that ONCE, the Spanish lottery for the blind, was contemplating this dramatic decision.
This talk was underpinned by the results of ONCEís internal elections, which saw Josť Maria Arroyo, a long-time supporter of the cycling squad, removed from his position of head of the company. According to a report in today's El Diario Vasco, Arroyo and his team have been replaced by a new management team that is intending to bring about a change in focus within ONCEís marketing strategy.
Team boss Manolo Saiz was unaware of any plans on ONCEís part to pull out of the sport this year. "All I can say is that weíve got a meeting with the new board or management on August 4, and I suppose if there are any changes they will tell us then," he told El Diario Vasco.
The possibility of ONCE pulling out a year before the conclusion of their latest three-year commitment to Saizís team is complicated slightly by seven of the teamís 23 riders being signed to contracts that terminate at the end of 2004. Those seven are Josť Azevedo, JŲrg Jaksche, Marcos Serrano, Angel Vicioso, Alberto Contador, Gian Paolo Caruso and Jonathan Gonzalez. However, none are reported to be on excessively high salaries and ONCEís new management may decide it is worth paying them off in order to save a much larger amount of money.
Reports in Spain have suggested that current ONCE co-sponsors Eroski and WŁrth might be interested in stepping up their involvement if ONCE do pull out. However, Eroski have already indicated that, although they are interested in staying in cycling beyond 2004, they would only do so as part of a co-sponsorship package.
Among those riders out of contract at the end of this year is ONCE team leader Joseba Beloki. The Spaniard was released from hospital in Vitoria in late July following treatment on the injuries he sustained when he crashed on the Tour de France stage to Gap. "Itís too early to say what my plans are," said Beloki following his release. "Iíve got several months of recuperation ahead of me and I still canít think about the next Tour yet."
Beloki broke his femur, elbow and rest in the crash that occurred as he was pushing hard in the pursuit of Alexandre Vinokourov on the cŰte de la Rochette. Beloki confirmed after an operation on his injuries that he would not ride again this season. He also thanked Lance Armstrong for ringing the clinic to check on the Spaniardís progress and admitted that the period off the bike would enable him to spend more time with his first child, whose birth is expected in August.