In an apparent U-turn, the International Cycling Union (UCI) have requested the withdrawal of the Astana Pro Team's World Tour licence, casting into doubt whether Italian Vincenzo Nibali will be able to defend his Tour de France title this summer.
It follows the UCI receiving an audit produced by the Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL), an independent body, regarding the anti-doping culture, policies, structures and management systems of the Kazakh-based team.
An independent Licence Commission made the decision to award the team a licence in December 2014, but stated that the audit was one of the conditions attached to their registration.
It followed doping cases concerning five of their riders last year with Kazakh riders Maxin and Valentin Iglinskiy testing positive for erythropoietin (EPO) and trainee Ilya Davidenok for anabolic steroid testosterone, as well as two other riders competing at a lower level for the team.
In December, the team, whose general manager is Alexander Vinokourov, the Kazakh rider who served a two-year doping ban between 2007 and 2009 before returning to win the London 2012 Olympic road race title, were initially awarded the licence.
UCI President Brian Cookson said at the time that the team could be considered "very much to be on probation".
However, in a statement today, the governing body said that the audit has "revealed a big difference between the policies and structures that the team presented to the Licence Commission in December and the reality on the ground".
Today's decision could be viewed as Cookson delivering on his election promise to have a "zero tolerance" approach to doping, with the Briton having been criticised by the likes of Lance Armstrong and Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford for failing to combat lingering problems in the sport.
The UCI have also confirmed that Italian authorities have provided them with sections of the Padova investigation, which has been looking into doping, with evidence relating to some Astana Pro team members being passed on to the Licence Commission.
Most significantly, today's latest decision puts the future of Nibali into doubt, despite the fact the Italian has never been directly linked with any doping.
But, without the World Tour licence, his team will not be guaranteed entry into the biggest races of the year such as the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a España.
Additionally the latest decision will be a blow to Vinokourov, just a week after he resigned as an ambassador for the Almaty 2022 Winter Olympics bid after questions had been raised about his doping past.
Following the news that their World Tour licence could be revoked, the Astana Pro Team have confirmed in a statement that the team "will consult with its attorneys to prepare documents and testimony before the independent Licence Commission."
The team have also stated they "will reserve its rights pending due process at the independent Licence Commission to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport following the scheduled procedure."
Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]
January 2015: Armstrong slams Cookson for failing to keep campaign promises
January 2015: Team Sky boss accuses International Cycling Union of not doing enough to combat doping
November 2014: Feeder squad of Tour de France winner's team provisionally suspended after third doping case
October 2014: UCI to investigate team of Tour de France winner after third rider tests positive for banned substance
September 2014: Cycling is now leading sport in anti-doping says UCI President Cookson