Amidst the adjustments to the BMX calendar and a reminder about new time trial position rules in the UCI’s Sport and Technical bulletin for October was a half a page on the future shape of men’s pro cycling. It’s the first sighting in public of the plans to remodel the calendar and it promises radical change with fewer race days, fewer top teams and fewer races.
Less is More
This idea was mentioned ahead of September’s UCI Congress. As you can see from the slide above the big idea is a calendar is capped at 120 days of racing, compared to a total of 153 days of racing for the World Tour in 2014 to which teams can currently add many more days by picking racing from UCI European Tour and other continental circuits.
Promotion and Relegation
The other big idea is a clearer system of promotion and relegation. Teams can go in and out of the World Tour today but the rules are opaque. The reform proposes clearer promotion and relegation criteria with two divisions although it seems these will still race the top races but on a reduced basis, perhaps only getting a few invitations to fill their quota of 50 days per year.
Below this will be a third division with all the other teams and all the other races, a giant warehouse for teams and races that won’t fit in the sport’s shop window for 2020.
The slide above shows some of the calendar. The start moves to February which means the Town Down Under will get bumped forward. There will be no overlap between events meaning no based on today’s calendar it means Tirreno-Adriatico would not be run the same time as Paris-Nice, nor would the Canadian races in Québec clash with the Vuelta. That’s sensible but not without complications.
Note the “stage races cut to 5 or 6 days”. It does not mean the Tour de France is changing. But it’s possible to imagine the Dauphiné starting on a Tuesday in order to finish by Sunday and then being chased by the Tour de Suisse the following Tuesday.
There will be 16 teams in the first division and with no overlapping races there is no need for a team of 30 riders as you don’t need to field two teams of nine riders along with team cars, soigneurs, mechanics and more so the team size will be reduced substantially. Fewer riders, fewer staff.
Another slide and more a statement of the obvious. But note “quality accommodation” is mentioned, cycling’s a sport where millionaire riders stay in cheap motels to do their work. It’s part of the job but riders do notice it when they stay in a swanky starred hotel in Doha or Montreal.
Cycling’s calendar and structure is a jumbled mix that has grown up over a century. It’s dysfunctional, confusing and often unsustainable. Any consultancy firm tasked with looking at things would see the obvious problems of overlapping races, confusing rules and so from afar.
But this mess is also charming, open and varied. It might take newcomers more than a moment to learn the intricacies of the calendar but this is part of the sport’s heritage. Imagine a wild wood with ancient trees compared to a forestry plantation with its neat rows, one is a healthier ecosystem than the other.
Streamlining the calendar makes a lot of sense. Ever since this blog’s been going I’ve said overlapping races on the World Tour calendar is wrong. But at the lower level hasn’t been too much of a problem. For example the Tour of Austria runs in July but everyone wins. Those not selected for the Tour can get some racing and locals in Austria enjoy a decent race on their doorstep. Bring in exclusivity and it’s Adieu to the Tour of Austria because with no big teams taking part the interest could dry up. Whether this is pruning back weak races that are slowly dying or an enforced execution remains to be seen.
One Race at a Time
The calendar will have blocks of racing where if a rider wants to race then they will have to do what is on at the time, rather than say, picking between the Tour of Britain or Vuelta as part of their pre-World Championship plan. It means there won’t be different pathways to the Tour de France, no longer can some opt for the Dauphiné whilst others try the Tour de Suisse. But funnelling all the best riders into the same race won’t guarantee the best racing, just because the Tour of the Basque Country stops overlapping with Paris-Roubaix won’t see Nairo Quintana try some cobbles or Tom Boonen scale the Alto de Arrate either. The variety of races will still require specialist skills and abilities.
A reduction in the number of races needs to be matched by a careful offering of races. Most of the big sponsorship in pro cycling comes because of the media coverage offered by the Tour de France but each team has subtle preferences for the rest of the calendar. Take Argos-Shimano, Argos sells fuel in the Netherlands and surrounding countries but it doesn’t operate Spain or Italy. So it will chose to race in its own countries if possible when it can elect to ride events outside of the World Tour. Scrap a lot of these races and you reduce the exposure on offer for such a sponsor. By contrast if you want to bring in genuine multinational corporate sponsorship the you need to offer a genuinely multinational calendar to match. But easier said than done, especially as pro cycling has such a varied audience demographic. In Europe the typical viewer is a senior citizen, in the US it’s a much younger male.
Who profits? The cake is getting smaller. Riders as a whole won’t gain if there are fewer of them at work but it should place a greater emphasis on those who win, a “rich get richer” scenario. The same for the calendar where ASO and RCS own the Giro, Tour and Vuelta which alone will account for half of the calendar (assuming the Vuelta stays three weeks) so they’ll win whilst smaller races are consigned to the rump of the third division. Team owners too will expect big coverage but won’t need 90 people in their employ.
In short anyone with an asset in the sport, whether an entrenched race franchise, a team licence or just DNA suited to stage racing will gain.
Change is coming and all this will be in place by 2020 at the latest. Some of this makes sense but reshaping the calendar without harming other races will be tricky, the proposals appear to create a top tier that becomes distant if not entirely separate from the rest of the calendar. This elite will also be a lot smaller with fewer riders and a small entourage as well although whether this achieves cost savings is another thing.
For now we’ve got a glimpse of the future hidden inside a small PDF newsletter, as if the UCI is shy about these massive changes. It’s like looking at a faraway land through a telescope, we can see a long way ahead but the field of vision is narrow. All the plans and powerpoint slides are the easy part, reaching this distant land and appealing to fans, sponsors and TV executives alike is much harder.