By Caelli Greenbank – @fireflycaelli
If you?ve seen a cycling website within the past two months, the words ?ASO?, ?UCI?, ?Tour de France? and ?future of cycling? have probably been there on the front page.? It may seem like a lot of fuss over just a little politics, but unfortunately this seemingly political war has already gone beyond the bickering of the boardroom table and into the rough-and-tumble of reality.? The cycling world is about to undergo a major change, to a world where the Tour de France isn?t the top WorldTour race and the best cyclist is Norway?s Alexander Kristoff.? Surprised?? Well, it?s happening.? Here?s how it all began?
For about as long as the two organisations have existed, cycling?s governing body, the Union Cycliste International (UCI), has been going to bat against the owner of the Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO).? As the promoters and protectors of the sport of professional cycling, the UCI?s purview is, or should be, the promotion and development of pro cycling, while the corporate ASO naturally has an eye on their pocket in addition to the above noble goals.? The result is clashes like the one now being played out in cycling media.
The last major showdown began in 2005 with the introduction of the ProTour (predecessor of our current WorldTour cycling model), and tempers heated up in 2007 and 2008.? The three organisers of the Grand Tours ? ASO, RCS (Giro d?Italia) and Unipublic (Vuelta a Espa?a) ? were engaged in a power struggle with the UCI, and the measures they took got pretty serious.? In 2007, several events were run as ProTour events but without the proper ProTour licences, and the ASO downgraded Paris-Nice from ProTour to NE (national event) status in an attempt to exclude ProTour team Unibet.com, which made all the ProTour teams ineligible to race the lower-ranked event.? Things really came to a head in 2008, though, when all three Grand Tour organisers withdrew all their races from the ProTour calendar.? Three Grand Tours, four of the five Monuments and four further races suddenly ceased to count in the UCI rankings, and the ProTour dropped from 26 races for the year to a meagre 15, including the newly-minted Tour Down Under.
The current (battle) ground
As part of new UCI President Brian Cookson?s mandate, the UCI has been working on a series of reforms to professional men?s cycling, including a new three-year licencing system for the ProTour team licences. The ASO, which owns more than half a dozen of the world?s biggest cycling races, including the Tour de France and the Vuelta de Espana, opposes these reforms, especially the three-year licencing system, which they feel will create a ?closed? system without enough transparency in cycling.? The UCI refuses to halt their reforms and the two organisations are now at loggerheads ? again.
Kickback from the ASO
Back in June last year, while the reforms were still in the planning stages, the ASO informed the UCI that if they proceeded with the changes, the ASO would remove all their races from the ?World Tour? classification in the UCI rankings and instead register them as ?HC ? Hors Cat?gorie? (beyond categorisation) for the 2017 season.? A UCI Management Committee meeting held in Barcelona in September approved the reforms without any strenuous opposition from the ASO, who instead followed through on their earlier threat by announcing just before Christmas 2015 that they would register their races as HC for the 2017 racing season.
All races included within the UCI WorldTour calendar are categorised according to their importance or difficulty within the sport.? Each category includes both one day races (whose codes begin with 1.*) and stage races (2.*).? The different is what comes in place of the *. For Elite Men, the lowest ranking is #.2, then #.1, followed by #.HC, and above that is a category simply marked WT ? WorldTour. ?The key difference between races marked WT and races marked HC is the rules by which they must abide.
All races in the WT category have a series of duties and obligations set out in the UCI Regulations, from who they invite to participate and running an additional event to support grassroots cycling, to promoting the WorldTour and providing the UCI with complete financial transparency in regards to the event.? Basically, it?s a hefty list of requirements, but the one that concerns us now is control over the invite list.? Whereas WorldTour events are required to invite all ProTour teams (and all ProTour teams are obliged to accept invitations to WorldTour events), HC category events can only have a ProTour participation rate of 70%, while the rest of the field comprises Pro Conti teams, local Conti teams and national teams.? Within that 70% rule, how many and which teams get invited is entirely up to the organisers? discretion.? That means that the 2017 Tour de France could be raced only by French ProTour, Pro Conti and Conti teams, if that?s what the ASO wants.
What that means for the World Tour
The WorldTour calendar is about to get a lot less shiny.? With cycling?s keynote event gone, the Vuelta off the table and four more races at the top level out the window (Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Li?ge-Bastogne-Li?ge and the Crit?rium du Dauphin?), a lot of the history and prestige that brings in the fans disappears as well.? There?s more, though.? The six ASO races above, along with La Fl?che Wallone, contribute almost one-third of winning points available in the WorldTour (those available for first place).? Without those, there?s less than 2,000 points available for winning all 21 WorldTour races.
It also dramatically changes the landscape of professional cyclists, given that the ASO races are often targeted for their prestige and glamour alone.? Without the points awarded for the first three places in the WorldTour ASO races, it would have been in fact Alexander Kristoff who led the 2015 WorldTour rankings, with Alberto Contador and Thibaut Pinot rounding out the top three (up from 4th, 7th and 10th places respectively).? First and second place-getters Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez only just make the top 10, at 8th and 9th, and 6th-placed Chris Froome, who won the 2015 Tour de France, drops to an astounding 35th.? Point being, the ASO races exert a massive influence on the WorldTour rankings, so we can expect to see some changes in the 2017 charts.
The 411 for Australian cycling
The main effect this will have on Australian cycling is increasing the prestige of Australia?s only WorldTour race, the Tour Down Under.? With almost a thousand fewer first-place points up for grabs, those that remain just increased in value, and the TDU (along with 10 other races, all of which are Europe Tour) is second only to the sole remaining Grand Tour in WorldTour points.? For any of the top riders hunting points to move up the WorldTour rankings, the Tour Down Under just became one of the best places to do that, which will hopefully mean a much more hotly-contested race with greater prestige and TV coverage to match.
The down side
Sadly, every silver lining has a cloud, and despite the supposedly positive effect this will have for the Tour Down Under, it may just do the opposite.? Essentially the WorldTour is about to be split into two camps ? the ASO races and the UCI races.? Which organisation you support and which races you prioritise will depend on which races you want to be invited to.? That means that if you want to race the Tour de France, which everyone will, it behooves you to stay on the good side of the ASO.? The French teams are already known to support the ASO, but most of the Italian, Dutch and English-speaking teams, along with a few others, have banded together to form the business group Velon, which sides with the UCI.? For these teams to redeem themselves in the eyes of the ASO and score a coveted Tour berth, they?ll probably have to skate through or even boycott the UCI races altogether.
It seems like a ridiculous proposition at first, when you consider that WorldTour races means precious WorldTour points that help teams secure a WorldTour licence for the following year, except that the value of a WorldTour licence has always been the ability to contest top-level races like the Tour de France, and those will no longer be WorldTour.? As such, WorldTour points suddenly became valuable for nothing else except winning the annual WorldTour rankings, and if at comes at the cost of forfeiting the Tour, the Vuelta, et al, then that seems like too steep a price.? Therefore, with no interest in WorldTour points, and no real reprisals from the UCI possible, the TDU and the remaining WorldTour races may even take a nose-dive as teams skip them in favour of the more prestigious ASO races.
So, who has the upper hand?
The ASO. At the end of the day, professional cycling is all about contesting the very best bike races in the world, and right now the ASO holds most of those in their hot little hands.? The Tour de France is the ASO?s most valuable bargaining chip, and it?s hard to imagine that the UCI would do anything to jeopardise the race that epitomises our sport.