Feb 16, 2016 – When Tour de France owner ASO came to the UCI in late 2008 to end the war between the two organizations (see my last column: “How ASO revived the ‘dead’ UCI ProTour”), it seemed that all was calm in the world of professional cycling. Their signed agreement meant that the UCI ProTour was initially replaced by a world rankings calendar, which included all of the races organized by ASO and the other grand tour promoters, before it morphed into the UCI WorldTour in 2011. The deal also replaced the teams’ four-year licenses with renewable one-year deals, which met ASO’s desire for a European-style league system of promotion and relegation.

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

After the agreement was signed, globalizing the sport was high on the agendas of both the UCI and ASO. Australia’s Tour Down Under and Canada’s one-day classics in Québec and Montréal were added to the WorldTour and, in 2011, the UCI’s Global Cycling Promotion entity (headed by former ProTour manager Alain Rumpf) partnered with ASO to add China’s Tour de Beijing. And after ASO replaced its longtime president Patrice Clerc with the owner’s son Jean-Etienne Amaury, a more cosmopolitan executive who’d lived in London and California, the French company also began to increase its number of events around the world.

ASO added the Tour of Oman and Critérium du Dauphiné in 2010, the Dutch-Belgian World Ports Classic in 2012, the Arctic Race of Norway and Japan’s Saitama Criterium in 2013, La Course (the women’s circuit race in Paris on the last day of the men’s Tour de France) in 2014 and Britain’s Tour de Yorkshire in 2015. Also, ASO became 100-percent owner of the Vuelta a España in March 2014 and after seven years as the media partner of AEG, owner of the Tour of California, it has now become that event’s full technical partner.

Besides its total of 18 bike races (and other properties such as the various L’Étape gran fondos, the Paris Marathon, Dakar Rally, sailboat Tour de France and four golf tournaments), the Amaury Group has become a sports-only publisher by selling the general-interest newspaper Le Parisien to focus on the sports daily L’Équipe and magazines such as France Football, Le Journal de Golf and Vélo; and it has reached into new media with its own television channel, L’Équipe 21, and specialist websites. By expanding its sports platform and ASO’s global portfolio of events, the Amaury family has become totally focused on, as matriarch and CEO Marie-Odile Amaury puts it, “leaving the group in good shape for my two children.” In other words, a more vibrant ASO wants to keep all the revenues it generates from television and its properties. It doesn’t want to share them—a fact that remains at the heart of the ASO-UCI “debate” over the UCI WorldTour, as I will show later.

14 October 2009 Presentation of Tour de France 2010 AMAURY Jean-Etienne (ASO) President of A.S.O. Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

The far-stronger ASO is one of the big differences in the ASO-UCI relationship since their 2008 agreement. Through this same seven-year period, the UCI has itself experienced many changes. The biggest one was caused by the “reasoned decision” of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the report on the U.S. Postal Service team doping conspiracy published on October 10, 2012. This 1,000-plus-page report blew the lid on the omertà that shrouded the EPO and blood-doping era for 20 years. At the heart of the report were signed testimonies from 11 former USPS team members who all admitted to doping, resulting in a lifetime ban from competition for team leader, Lance Armstrong.

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That damning report was a watershed moment for pro cycling and it had repercussions on all parties within the sport. ASO was embarrassed by yet another doping scandal—even though it was a retrospective one that resulted in Armstrong’s name being deleted from ASO’s list of Tour de France winners. It was an embarrassment for the UCI, whose anti-doping program and affiliated national federations didn’t catch the USPS cheats—other than Tyler Hamilton (at the 2004 Vuelta) and Floyd Landis (at the 2006 Tour) after they’d left the USPS squad. As for the teams (and their riders), they were embarrassed because USPS was just one more “bad apple” to add to the 20 or so teams that had been involved in doping scandals over the previous 15 years—including Astana, Cofidis, CSC, Deutsche Telekom, Euskaltel, Fassa Bortolo, Festina, Gerolsteiner, Katusha, Kelme, Lampre, Liberty Seguros, Mercatone Uno, Milram, Panaria, Phonak, Rabobank, Saunier Duval and TVM.

The timing of USADA’s reasoned decision was unfortunate for UCI president Pat McQuaid because it came at the start of his reelection campaign before the September 2013 UCI Congress in Florence, Italy. So instead of talking up the UCI’s progress in expanding the international reach of cycling, the increasing success of the pioneering athlete biological passport program or the end of the ASO-UCI war, he had to defend his record against a slew of allegations—some generated by members of the UCI management committee—which were endlessly repeated on social media. The result was the election of a new president, Brian Cookson, the former UCI road commission chairman and president of British Cycling.

TEAMS’ RENEWED ENERGY

While Cookson was saying his priority would be to “ensure a swift investigation into cycling’s doping culture,” the teams that abetted that culture were emerging from the EPO era with a stronger and more united voice. And the teams’ renewed energy dramatically changed the dynamics of the battle over the UCI WorldTour’s future.

The ProTeams (see details at the end of his column) began to flex their new muscle in early 2009 when American team manager Jonathan Vaughters was elected president of their association, the AIGCP, taking over from Frenchman Eric Boyer who’d been prone to side with ASO in its battle with the UCI. In accepting the post, Vaughters told cyclingnews, “My first goal is to patch up some of the wounds which have been inflicted over the past years, and to unify the teams so that we can have a common mission—to present cycling as a professional and unified sport.”

The teams wielded their new power in 2011 when they protested the UCI’s plan to ban race radios in WorldTour events by threatening to boycott the inaugural edition of the Tour de Beijing. After negotiating with the UCI for six months, it was agreed that the radio ban would be put off at least until the end of 2012. That was a relatively minor victory for the teams, but it was one that encouraged them to start working toward their goals of obtaining (1) new revenue streams for the sport that would benefit all the stakeholders, not just race organizers like ASO, and (2) WorldTour licenses longer than the renewable one-year terms that had existed since 2009.

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Another step in the teams’ progress came at the end of 2014, when 11 of the WorldTour teams created a company, Velon, to work on their new goals (the teams are listed below). This business enterprise was triggered by Team Sky’s British boss Dave Brailsford, who said, “The teams involved in creating Velon have come together with a powerful shared vision to optimize the sport and develop new ways for it to grow.” Based in the UK, Velon picked as its CEO Graham Bartlett, a former executive with Nike and English Premier League soccer club, Liverpool FC. Besides making the sport more attractive with television coverage that features on-bike cameras and (potentially) radio communication between riders and team mangers, Velon’s brief is to create a more stable economic model for its members. “The existing sponsor-only business model is fragile for all teams,” Bartlett admitted.

The input of Velon and the other teams led to changes in the major reforms for pro cycling midway through the two years of discussion that resulted in much-changed proposals last December. Though the UCI’s Professional Cycling Council agreed to the reforms, ASO and the international race organizers association (AIOCC) voted unanimously against them—particularly the proposals that called for three-year licenses for the 18 ProTeams and increased numbers of events in the WorldTour. As a result, Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme announced on December 18, two months ago, that ASO was withdrawing its two grand tours, two French stage races and three spring classics from the WorldTour in 2017.

“We don’t agree with the [latest] reform,” Prudhomme told French website Velo101. “We hope that the roots [of the sport] are respected…. A world circuit without the Tour de France, Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, the Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour of Spain [is] no longer a truly elite calendar. As for the reform, we’re looking at a completely different reality from what existed a year ago. At the end of 2014, we were told there’d be a reduction in the number of days of racing on the WorldTour calendar. Today, instead of 30 fewer days, they’re proposing adding 30 days.”

An increased number of WorldTour races was confirmed by UCI president Cookson in his New Year’s message: “It was agreed that greater stability will be achieved by registering existing UCI WorldTour events for an initial three-year period (2017–19). Events from the tier below can also apply to join the UCI WorldTour. The first candidates will be assessed in 2016 and any selected will be incorporated for the 2017 season for an initial three-year period.”

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As for the three-year ProTeam licenses, which Prudhomme continues to refer to as a closed system, he told Agence France Presse: “We refused the closed system. This will not affect the sporting level of our races. The champions will always want to participate in the best races.” It remains to be seen whether ASO will go ahead with its plan to register all of its seven events under the HC rating because that event category has restrictions on race distances (a 200-kilometer maximum for one-day races) and the number of ProTeams that can take part (70 percent of the total, or 15 of the 22 teams that regularly start grand tours). Right now, ASO’s plans represent a blow to both UCI president Cookson and the ProTeams.

Without a guaranteed place at the Tour de France, teams lose the bargaining chip they have in attracting (and retaining) title sponsors. And while the WorldTour no longer has a separate classification—it has returned to a World Rankings system that includes all UCI-sanctioned road races on the international calendar—ASO’s decision to opt out of the UCI WorldTour marks a new chapter in the decades-long conflict between the world’s biggest race promoter and the UCI—a conflict that now includes the better-organized ProTeams.

Speaking to Business Insider in January, Vaughters of Cannondale Pro Cycling, a Velon member, said: “The linchpin issue that’s preventing this whole thing from moving, is three years versus one-year [licenses]. And those reforms that passed through are [only] 10 percent or 20 percent of what the teams really should be asking for. Unfortunately, we compromised far more than ASO, and it still wasn’t enough.”

Discussing the current impasse, former UCI president McQuaid, who helped negotiate the 2008 ASO-UCI deal, said, “The teams and Velon should forget about ASO’s rights and concentrate on building better business models out of the team structures. There isn’t one team who operate like a business. Not one has a reserve fund being built up every year as a business would. If they did get, say, 50 percent of ASO’s rights, that might work out at one to two million euros per team—and what would they do with it? Offer bigger salaries to top riders? Does that improve their economic situation or business model? No!”

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McQuaid, who was working on a reform program with the various stakeholders when he was voted out of office in September 2013, added, “Cookson inherited a reform program that was a natural follow-on from the agreement the UCI carved out with ASO in 2008. That reform was 80-percent complete and all were in agreement, including ASO. But his guys scrapped it under pressure from…the teams, and so fairly early on ASO recognized that the proposals…were actually all in favor of the teams.

“It meant, on paper, promotion and relegation was possible—but in the seven years since 2008 no team has been relegated from the bottom and the No. 1 team in the Pro Continental ranking hasn’t been promoted. Indeed, being World Tour depended on finance basically. That has worked well over the past seven years. ASO never approached the UCI and insisted that bottom goes down and top comes up—so why introduce something else, which is really of no significance and risks another war with the biggest stakeholder? Because, make no mistake about it, if ASO register their races on the HC calendar in 2017 the WorldTour is nothing. The UCI will have no choice but to go back on their hands and knees with a renewed version.”

As for ASO, a spokesperson told Business Insider last month: “For now…we have made a decision, and it is impossible to go back. But I don’t know of any meeting planned. But, so far, we stay by this.” At the same time, current UCI president Cookson said: “We’ve got to…find something that works for everybody, and we’ve come up with such proposals that we believe do that…. ASO at the moment don’t hold that view. But I’m hopeful that with continued dialogue we can get to a solution.”

Talking to journalists at the Tour of Qatar last week, Cookson added, “I haven’t spoken to [ASO] since earlier last year…. The UCI met at the management committee last week and we reconfirmed our position on the 2017 reforms. I’m sure we can come to an agreement with the ASO without the outbreak of war again….”

Prudhomme also tried to play down the brewing conflict between ASO and the UCI. “After the Paris [terrorists] attacks [in November], I’d never use the word war,” he said. “There are differences, yes, but this is not a war.”

Maybe not a war, but if a new deal cannot be made in the next six months, the WorldTour/ProTour will be dead again.

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TEAMS IN THE WORLDTOUR

Of the 18 ProTeams that existed in 2009, 11 of those organizations are still in the WorldTour; two have reverted to Pro Continental status (Cofidis and Direct Énergie, but they’re both French and pretty much assured of receiving wild-card invitations to the Tour de France); four have folded because of losing their title sponsors (Spain’s Euskaltel and Fuji, the U.S.’s High Road and Germany’s Milram); and one (Italy’s Liquigas/Cannondale) merged with the Garmin-Slipstream organization last year.

In their places have appeared seven of the strongest current squads (BMC Racing, Team Sky, Trek-Segafredo, Orica-GreenEdge, Giant-Alpecin, IAM and Dimension Data), which are registered respectively in the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and South Africa. All of those new teams (except for the latest ProTeams, IAM and Dimension Data) are members of Velon, along with Cannondale Pro Cycling, Etixx-Quick Step, Lampre-Merida, Lotto-Soudal, Lotto NL-Jumbo and Tinkoff.

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You can follow John at @johnwilcockson