Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) issued a press release today saying it plans pull all of its races from the 2017 World Tour and register them as HC-status events in 2017. This isn’t a technical matter of labelling events but a huge issue for the UCI’s World Tour and the design of pro cycling.
It’s a bombshell but the fuse had been lit a long time ago. ASO look aggressive for deploying it and the UCI looks negligent for not defusing it.
What races are involved?
ASO owns the following World Tour races: the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice, Critérium du Dauphiné, Liége-Bastogne-Liège, Flèche Wallonne and the Vuelta a España. Expressed another way they comprise 61 days of 148 days on the World Tour calendar or 42%. In 2017 these events will be pulled from the World Tour. Here’s ASO’s statement:
ASO’s press release in English, cites a rejection of the UCI’s World Tour reforms for 2017 pic.twitter.com/lP7XD5jd0Z
— the Inner Ring (@inrng) December 18, 2015
ASO says it rejects a “closed sport system” and wants a “European model”. Conceptually it means opposing teams having long term licences, a bit like granting an NBA team a multi-year franchise, and wants a system more like you’d see in, say, a European soccer league, where the best teams get promoted and the worst relegated every year.
There’s much more to this than a squabble over the design of a promotion system, wider reforms have been publicly rebuked too. It’s all about who has the final say over the reform of the sport.
Is this news?
Yes and no. The announcement is big but it’s not new. Back in June we got the story of a leaked letter from ASO saying they’d pull their races from the calendar if the course of reform was not altered. Last week the UCI went public with its reforms so ASO has done what they said they’d do.
In fact the scenario may be a surprise but it looks inevitable. ASO said they’d react this way if things did not change and UCI President Brian Cookson has been saying “we don’t want to have a war” and issuing repeated pleas in media interviews but without getting ASO to buy into the reforms. The more Cookson talked to cyclingnews the more obvious it was he trying to go over ASO and appeal to others.
They started under previous President McQuaid and upon his election Cookson continued with them only at some point he decided to scrap a lot of them (smaller teams, fewer race days) and start again. The new plans have yet to be unveiled in any meaningful detail but last week the UCI said:
the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and key stakeholders of men’s professional road cycling have agreed on the details of the reform.
With hindsight can we read the text above again and note it’s “the UCI and key stakeholders”, rather than the UCI and all stakeholders?
What does ASO’s move mean?
The UCI calendar has several tiers of races with World Tour at the top, then .HC, then .1 and .2 races. ASO say they will register their World Tour races on the HC calendar for 2017, one step below World Tour.
In strict regulatory terms the UCI rules say an HC race can invite up to 70% of the teams from the UCI World Tour and UCI Pro Continental and UCI Continental teams can be invited. This implies a maximum of 14 World Tour teams in a field of 20 – ASO wants fewer teams – meaning four World Tour teams spend July washing their hair, maybe more.
But this isn’t just about team compositions on the startlist. First, ASO’s move would give it more control over who it can invite and who it leaves behind. Second it devalues a World Tour licence. Why would teams pay for a licence that cannot guarantee them a start in two grand tours, two large stage races and two Monuments? Similarly why would other races pay to be on a calendar that nobody understands when they too could copy ASO and elect who can ride.
This could then generate second order consequences. Without an automatic invite a lot of notional World Tour teams will want to be in ASO’s good books in order to start the Tour de France. Some teams seem essential but others are replaceable and these weaker teams could feel compelled to race Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné but also the Criterium International and the Arctic Tour of Norway and bring their best riders along to woo ASO too. So we end up with the irony of ASO demoting their races’ UCI status yet possibly holding more power over the calendar and the teams. It’s worth noting that ASO’s move is still within the UCI rules, it is not threatening to walk away, just to undermine the World Tour from within.
We’ve been here before. In 2007 the UCI and ASO were at war over the Pro Tour and ASO decided to put Paris-Nice on the French national calendar instead of the UCI’s calendar.
“If you decide, against the rules, to take part in Paris-Nice, you will be heavily penalised”
– UCI President Pat McQuaid, 2007
The UCI replied that the top teams could not compete in this now local race but the race went ahead. The teams could not afford to miss this major rendez-vous and they were worried about upsetting ASO in case it meant no invitation for the Tour de France. So the race went on and the UCI looked foolish for issuing threats it could not follow-up on. This happened again in 2008 when ASO wanted the French agency the AFLD to conduct anti-doping – itself a proxy war over who managed anti-doping – and the UCI issued threats but had to back down again.
The circumstances were different but it shows the balance of power. Fast forward and today’s UCI President Brian Cookson reflects this. He’s said several times recently that the UCI may set the rules but it governs by consensus, not control, telling cyclingnews.com that “the UCI is the international governing body. And I say governing, not controlling.” We can add another headwind because the UCI has internal splits, it’s Management Committee has in recent times found Vice-President David Lappartient and Igor Makarov apparently taking opposing views to Cookson.
Are the teams caught in the crossfire? Some but remember the Velon group of teams have been cheerleaders and, according to some, even the architects of some of the UCI’s reforms so they’re not necessarily bystanders here.
Many team owners want longer term licences but most cannot afford to upset ASO. Even if the Velon teams teams decided to boycott ASO races the empty spaces in the Tour can be filled with lesser teams. Not ideal for ASO either but you’d still get a Tour with Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, Fabio Aru, Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot and more. Yet how long would sponsors stick with Velon teams willingly avoiding the biggest races? Even if the sponsors stayed firm many riders would jump to teams happy to ride the Tour de France, everything else being equal a team that rides the Giro and Tour, the Tour of Flanders and Roubaix, is better than one that won’t. Nothing says the Tour will remain the sport’s biggest event for ever but if another race is to overtake it this will take years and years. ASO can wait while others cannot, knowing they own the keystone that props up the rest of the sport.
There’s no need to get too Machiavellian plotting boycott scenarios, the teams and sponsors have more pressing issues. The UCI’s plans for 2017 have been announced in a press release but there’s nothing more to go. So already any sponsors thinking about involvement in the “new” World Tour don’t know what they’re buying into but until now it’s been a matter of details, from the cost of a licence to the ranking system used. Today’s news threatens to blow the whole system for teams and races out of the water.
Presumably the UCI will respond but what can they say? The UCI has been riding in one direction having dropped ASO some time ago. Does Brian Cookson do a U-turn and pedal back to meet ASO somewhere? Not easy given Oleg Tinkov has already said “we need licences for at least five years, not just three” suggesting that diluting the three year system further makes reforms quasi-homeopathic. Thee UCI says it “remains committed to implementing the reforms” in other words it’s not in the mood to go back.
There’s time for the UCI and ASO to talk and resolve this so that the Tour de France is back in the World Tour for 2017. Yet the positions look opposed and entrenched so it’s not going to be over by Christmas. Indeed the more this drags on the more confusion there is over the status of team licences and the World Tour calendar for 2017 which imperils the project.
Which side to take?
Perhaps it’s worth being cautious here. This is not Star Wars with goodies and baddies, both sides have sensible arguments and unreasonable demands alike. The UCI looks foolish for announcing reforms that never had ASO’s approval, to the point where they reportedly sat silent in a World Tour seminar because they felt like it wasn’t worth adding anything given they were not being listened too yet this makes ASO look childish too.
ASO’s decision concerns the 2017 calendar but there are be immediate effects. It’s superficially about the three year licences given to teams but really about the wider control over the sport.
This is a news bombshell but it’s neither unexpected, nor nuclear. ASO said they’d do this if the UCI didn’t change direction and now they’ve done it’ but haven’t gone all the way, the races will still be UCI events but just not World Tour so there’s a chance for rapprochement here. This distinction matters but at the same time it’s tiny, taking the Tour de France out of the World Tour is not an administrative decision but a declaration of war.