Dec 4, 2015 – Amid the euphoria that greeted Lizzie Armistead’s winning the women’s road worlds in Richmond, Virginia, little focus was given to an answer she gave to a simple question at her post-race press conference.
Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada
The British cyclist—who also won the 2015 UCI World Cup (a series of nine single-day classics)—was asked whether she would target the newly announced Women’s WorldTour, which replaces the World Cup next year with a schedule combining four stage races and 13 one-day races. Armistead replied, “No. I don’t really like stage racing. My focus in 2016 will be the Olympics in Rio.”
Her answer kind of deflates the UCI’s initiative in creating a WorldTour for women—at least one with a calendar combining stage races and classics. Structurally, the men’s and women’s WorldTours are good for the sport, particularly in regard to the strict management, financial and ethical standards that teams have to follow to gain WorldTour status. But the calendar of events, mixing one-day and multi-day races, remains a stumbling block.
The major problem with the WorldTour calendar is that, for the fans and the media, the overall rankings do not have as much relevance as the races themselves—even though the individual, team and nation rankings are important to riders negotiating contracts, to countries qualifying for world championships and Olympic Games, and to teams in gaining ProTeam and/or Pro Continental status. But, despite 14 of the men’s 27 WorldTour events being single-day races, the overall winner is almost always a stage race/climbing specialist. And the name of the overall winner gets scant attention in the media. Over the past seven years, the title has been won three times by Joaquim Rodriguez, twice by Alejandro Valverde and once by Alberto Contador. The only classics rider to take top spot was Philippe Gilbert in 2011, a season when, exceptionally, he won five WorldTour classics.
There has been talk of reforming and reorganizing professional cycling for many years, but despite myriad proposals, extensive discussions and endless speculation, there is no true consensus between the UCI, race organizers, pro teams and racers—though the stakeholders are hoping for a positive outcome to a WorldTour seminar to be attended by the various stakeholders in Barcelona on December 7 and 8. On the table is the UCI reform package that was approved by its management committee at the Richmond worlds. Full details have not been revealed, but it’s believed that one of the reforms would be a return to the overall ranking system for all the riders in WorldTour, Pro Continental and Continental teams—similar to the UCI World Rankings system that existed before the WorldTour (previously the ProTour) began in 2009. That makes sense, but it sidesteps what to do with the WorldTour itself.
All we know is that the UCI said in Richmond that it’s hopeful that “the addition of new high quality events will help the UCI WorldTour reinforce its global profile as the elite series of the sport.” The reform proposals have been endorsed by the Professional Cycling Council (which includes team and rider representatives), but last month the plan was soundly rejected by AIOCC, the French acronym for the International Association of Cycling Race Organizers. That group is chaired by Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, whose all-powerful ASO group is against adding new races and wants current WorldTour events such as Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico to be separated on the calendar instead of clashing.
ASO feels threatened by the reforms being proposed and is reluctant to lose revenue from a business model it has built up over the past several decades. On the opposing side are the teams belonging to Velon, which wants to increase the overall revenue streams from pro cycling, with increased revenue sharing—which ASO opposes.
If progress is to be made on achieving a new structure for pro cycling, it’s clear that any proposals need to include the establishment of a well-balanced calendar, agreeing to an equitable revenue-sharing system and perhaps creating a new agency (made up of race organizers and ProTeams with a UCI component) that can organize, publicize and monetize the WorldTour.
Among the difficulties of defining the cycling calendar and promoting it to today’s media and public are the vastly different types of races (one-day classics, weeklong stage races, and three-week grand tours) and different types of athletes (sprinters, time trialists and climbers). Perhaps cycling can better learn from similar sports that have multiple disciplines, such as track & field athletics. The IAAF’s Diamond League is a global calendar featuring 32 different disciplines in 12 separate race meets from May to September. Cycling doesn’t need or want 32 disciplines, but instead of the UCI jumbling together all the different cycling disciplines into a single calendar (whether it’s for the WorldTour or any of the five continental tours), it could create two separate competitions, one for single-day races (similar to the former UCI World Cup, but adding new classics in new global markets), and one comprised purely of stage races.
This dual calendar would reflect the reality of pro racing today. Virtually no grand tour contenders compete in the classics (other than the extremely hilly Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Flèche Wallonne and Il Lombardia). And no classics specialist, such as Alexander Kristoff or Tom Boonen, has a chance of winning a grand tour. Emphasizing the division between classics riders and grand tour riders, teams have already changed the way they approach the different types of races. For instance, Team Sky’s grand tour riders focus on training camps and riding shorter stage races (not the classics) in preparation for the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.
Using a dual formula for the UCI WorldTour, up to a dozen new races could be added (six in each half of the new WorldTour), and the year’s best classics rider and the year’s best stage racer would be determined in a more competitive, one-on-one format. For the classics calendar, potential additions could be attractive races like the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Australia and Strade Bianche in Italy—which are held before the current classics opener, Milan-San Remo in mid-March. There would also be the potential for adding two classics in the U.S. in May or June, along the lines of Canada’s September duo, the Grand Prix de Québec and GP de Montréal. Also in the cards at season’s end could be the reinstatement of the historic Paris-Tours classic (owned by ASO) and the addition of the well-established Japan Cup.
As for the WorldTour stage race calendar, it could include one of the Middle East stage races (perhaps the Tour of Oman) or Argentina’s Tour de San Luis early in the year; established events such as the Amgen Tour of California or the Tour of Britain; and an end-of-season race in another new market, perhaps in Africa.
By having two separate calendars, WorldTour teams would be able to extend their current strategies of grouping their classics and grand tour specialists, while having the flexibility to use some classics men in stage races and some grand tour riders in classics. More importantly, each type of rider would have a true shot at becoming the top dog in their category—something that both the media and the public would understand.
Perhaps the stakeholders at next week’s WorldTour summit will agree to something similar and break the deadlock that has been plaguing our sport for too long.
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You can follow John at @johnwilcockson.