The UCI announced it had reached agreement with teams and race organisers for the upcoming World Tour reforms in a press release this week. Tomorrow’s World Tour will look a lot like today. A lack of vision or sensible stability?
Three Year Licences? Maybe
Teams will get three year licences. Confusingly some teams have had four year licences but they’ve always been subject to an annual review. The review has four pillars:
- Admin: having all the paperwork in place
- Ethical: an undefined set of criteria relating to fair-play and anti-doping
- Financial: having enough money to cover the projected team budget, especially wages
- Sporting: the team’s ranking, is it among the top-18 teams in the world?
What’s new for 2017 is that a team with a three year licence can ignore the final point, the sporting criteria. It can be sure of a start in the Tour de France, the golden ticket, as long as it satisfies the other three criteria. This provides some stability to a team but it’s not absolute, for example if a team loses a co-sponsor in 2018 then it could still trip up on the financial criteria; a doping scandal could trigger the ethical aspect and so on.
As well as risks to teams there’s also risk to fans and race organisers. Imagine a team that has a three year licence but loses a sponsor early and, unable to secure another backer, it has an exodus of talent leaving it with a rump of riders, just enough to meet the minimum criteria. Normally it would get relegated to Pro Conti faster than you can say “Europcar” but now this ghost ship can sail on in the World Tour until its licence expires. In fact it doesn’t have to happen by accident, a team could lose some talent and decide it’s not worth the bother of signing riders with points or results since they can ride on with a duff roster for a year or two. Now if we get one weak team it’s not that bad but should this happen to three or four squads then it’s a genuine problem with berths being hogged by weak teams. Unlikely, but the risk is there, can it be mitigated?
Perhaps the greater reassurance to sponsors comes from the other plank of team reforms, the so-called ISSUL audit element referred to by the UCI as the cahier des charges. Too often sponsors don’t come into the sport for fear of doping scandals but the ISSUL scheme is an innovation designed to provide reassurance and reduce the likelihood of a rider going rogue.
Three Year Licences? Yes…
One area where a three year licence can be promised is the calendar with race organisers sure of a three year deal in the World Tour. Existing events are promised this and new races, if approved, will get this. The Tour of Poland seems very happy with this.
It’s hard to have a vision when the picture is still incomplete. Some areas of the canvas are a work-in-progress. See the the creation of the Professional Calendar Working Group announced in the press release. Whether the PCWG becomes a must-know acronym remains to be seen but the point is that this body will discuss calendar reform. This signifies this area is unresolved. It’s going to have “two representatives each from the AIGCP (teams) and AIOCC (event organisers), plus one observer representing the riders” which suggests the UCI is retreating from setting the calendar.
The existing races on the World Tour calendar will remain and new events can apply to join. This means no streamlining or reduction of events, instead there will be more races if they want to apply to join. It’s not yet clear if the number of races remains whether there will be a reduction in race days for some events but given the race organisers now sit on the PCWG they’ll surely vote against shorter races (fewer days = fewer TV rights, stage hosting fees etc).
Cycling Isn’t Formula 1
The UCI uses the phrase “strengthening the pyramid” as part of its objectives and this means the top races are part of a wider calendar. Here’s the Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme speaking to Velonews:
“we remind everyone about the idea of a pyramid structure. Cycling is not like Formula 1. The top of the pyramid is more solid when the base is bigger and healthier. When a champion like Vincenzo Nibali, who’s won all three grand tours, can win a race like the Coppa Bernocchi, that’s fantastic. This connection between the top races and the regional races is fundamental and should continue to exist“
The significance of this shouldn’t be underestimated. It means there’s not going to be any breakaway league and attempts to engineer this will contradict a central plank of the policy. The World Tour won’t be an exclusive circuit, à la Formula 1, instead it’s a premium calendar but riders and teams can elect to compete elsewhere as well. This suits cycling where a rider on the comeback or with local interests may want to prefer a major World Tour race and ride a lesser event on the same weekend.
We’re promised a new visual identity of the UCI WorldTour for 2017, hopefully this includes a dedicated website. The UCI already has a new World Tour logo and is using this on its website although it’s instructed teams to use the old logo on their 2016 jerseys.
Where’s the vision?
Brian Cookson wrote in cyclingnews.com last week that when the original 2013 version of the reforms leaked they went down badly with France. This maybe true of the design it’s surely a procedural fault too because the UCI didn’t own its reforms and make the case for them, they either emerged inside a PDF buried on the website or leaked to Tuttobici. The same thing is happening again with the UCI’s press release which is all we get. There’s no accompanying presentational video and not even a dry set of PDF slides to set out what it’ll look like.
If the reforms above are timid and gradual that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Look around and the sport isn’t broken. There is a problem with sponsorship but a large share of the blame lies with the doping scandals of the past rather than the administrative designs of the UCI rulebook. Even if you wanted to see big change who in the sport could deliver this?
The UCI has announced reforms to the World Tour and the future will look a lot like today. For all the talks, meeting and seminars the World Tour in 2017 looks more like a tweak to the rulebook rather than a reshaping of the sport. Some wanted bolder change but they never made a strong case in public for it. Visions of a Formula 1 system of a closed circuit have gone, if anyone wants this they’re going to have to form their own breakaway league.
If you’re feeling underwhelmed by it all, think of the counter-factual where we get the teams, races and the UCI at war with ASO threatening to take its races off the calendar, Velon boycotting the Tour and more. Far-fetched? Only a few years ago the UCI was threatening riders who dared to start ASO races. The 2017 World Tour might not look that different but better small change than big failure?