MICHAEL Rogers' departure from Sky, the cycling team working hardest to project a clean image through the sport's drug crisis, has ''nothing whatsoever'' to do with doping, according to the British outfit's head coach.
The 32-year-old Australian champion will be considerably richer and have more opportunities for personal glory by joining Saxo-Tinkoff, where Alberto Contador is king but the general classification rider stocks are comparatively low. Yet with Saxo-Tinkoff poised to miss out on a 2013 World Tour licence from cycling's world governing body, the team is not guaranteed entry to the world's biggest races next year.
Union Cycliste Internationale licence criteria include ethical, financial and administrative considerations and in its most recent assessment of the 20 candidates on the shortlist for 18 licences, the ruling body ranked Saxo-Tinkoff last. Part of the team's problem is the doping record of its two main men: Contador, who lost the 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d'Italia crowns due to drugs, and owner and head coach Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour de France winner who confessed to banned substance use.
Sky boss Shane Sutton told Fairfax Media on Saturday he was ''personally gutted'' to lose Rogers. Sutton stressed that while the Australian, who was named in testimony and evidence in the US Anti-Doping Agency investigation into Lance Armstrong, had participated in Sky's now mandatory interviews about doping, the exercise was a non-factor in his subsequent departure from the team. Sky introduced more proactive zero-tolerance drug protocols in the aftermath of Armstrong's demise. They mandate that all riders and coaches be interrogated about drugs as a condition of remaining at the team. Three coaches have departed since - two who confessed to past doping, while senior sports director Sean Yates cited health problems.
Sutton said Rogers, in his interview at Sky, had defended his past involvement with doctor Michele Ferrari, now banned from the sport for life but whom the cyclist described in 2006 as ''the best coach in the world''. Rogers recently admitted that his own reputation might be ''tainted'' due to his past links to Ferrari, but maintained he was a clean competitor. ''Mick's always maintained he is innocent,'' Sutton said. ''He put his hand up, he admitted spending time with him [Ferrari] when he was with the team he was with at that time … but Mick came to us, and was a great asset to us. As far as we're concerned, he's a big loss to the team … a great loss.''
Rogers' move, in the mind of his former boss, is based chiefly on opportunity. At Sky, Rogers was the head domestique, pivotal in helping Bradley Wiggins win this year's Tour de France. Wiggins has already stated that winning next year's Giro d'Italia is his focus, and the team has indicated it will build its 2013 Tour de France campaign around Chris Froome. ''He's a businessman at the end of the day, and first and foremost the business he's in is about winning,'' Sutton said of Rogers. ''I think he believes he can probably win another big tour, albeit week-long tours … and I wouldn't put it past him … but that opportunity was never going to happen with Sky.''
Without a World Tour licence Saxo-Tinkoff, which has boosted Rogers' salary considerably in a two-year deal, would have to gain wildcard entries to major events.