Wout van Aert has already paid more than half a million Euros in compensation to his former team, but could face further punishment – including a possible racing suspension – as lawyers for Sniper Cycling owner Nick Nuyens call on the UCI to act on the decision of Belgian labour court earlier this year.
In June, the court overturned a previous ruling and found that Van Aert was in breach of contract when he left the Sniper set-up – then known as Verandas Willems-Crelan – in 2018 and joined Jumbo-Visma soon after.
Van Aert had claimed there were ‘urgent’ grounds for terminating his contract but the recent verdict ruled against him and he was ordered to pay €662,000 to Nuyens in compensation. Van Aert has appealed to the Belgian high court in a final attempt to overthrow the verdict.
Since the Belgian labour court ruling, Nuyens’ representatives claim they have written to the UCI on three separate occasions, but have not received any response.
“It’s as if we don’t exist,” lawyer Rudi Desmet told Cyclingnews on Thursday.
In correspondence with Van Aert’s representatives from 2018, seen by Cyclingnews, the UCI stated that it could not prevent him from signing for another team while the dispute was ongoing, but warned it reserved the right to take disciplinary action should it be later found that he was in the wrong.
According to Desmet, that was established in June, although he conceded that there was a possibility – however slim – that Van Aert could overturn the verdict and trigger a retrial with his appeal to the high court.
Now, he is calling on the UCI to take action against the three parties found to be at fault: Van Aert, Jumbo-Visma, and Van Aert’s agent Jef Van den Bosch.
“After the judgement in June, we contacted the other parties and asked them to reach a settlement – otherwise we said we would have to go to the UCI. Jumbo-Visma really refused to reach any settlement,” Desmet said.
“They entered into contract with him fully aware that he may have committed breach of contract, so they took a risk. With two years in between, the court has decided it was in fact an unlawful breach of contract. They took a risk and now they should pay the compensation, as provided for in the UCI regulations.”
According to those regulations, Jumbo-Visma could be fined between 30,000 to 500,000 CHF, as well as forced to pay Sniper Cycling compensation equivalent to remaining salary of Van Aert’s previous contract.
As for Van Aert, the regulations state he could be fined between 300 and 100,000 CHF but also suspended for one to four months, if the breach of contract occurred outside the transfer window period, which runs from August 1 to December 31.
Given he terminated his contract in September 2018 and signed for Jumbo-Visma in December 2018 – albeit on a contract beginning the following March – this does not appear to apply.
Desmet does not rule it out, but indicated that Van Aert is not the true target for them anymore.
“Based on the regulations and the timings, a suspension is a possible sanction, but that’s for the UCI to decide. The rider has paid the compensation, and the UCI might take that into account,” he said.
“We’re not aiming for a suspension for Wout van Aert. In our opinion, he has paid literally and figuratively, but his new team have not, and nor has his agent. They are walking away without any consequences, and that’s really not acceptable.”
Desmet confirmed that he first wrote to the UCI about this in August this year, claiming that he chose to wait for two months following the verdict so as not to interfere with Van Aert’s goals at the Tour de France and Olympics. He wrote again in October and as recently as last week, but has had no response.
Cyclingnews has asked the UCI whether it is looking at the case or intends to take action, but has yet to receive a reply.
“It’s just not normal that the UCI does not react,” Desmet said. “It’s an important rider, an important team… but my client no longer has a team, because the sponsors left when Wout van Aert left.
“From the perspective of other teams, this sets a very important precedent. Any other teams with good riders who generate a lot of publicity should be afraid now, because any rider can commit breach of contract, only for nothing to happen. I don’t understand why UCI is holding back. This is about the business model of cycling.”
The legal case will now go to the Belgian high court, which deals with the procedural elements of the labour tribunal rather than the facts of the case itself. There has been no date set for the appeal to be heard, and no end yet in sight for this long-running bitter dispute.