It takes something special to unite all the World Tour teams. Normally they’re in competition but also have opposite views, or at least their owners and managers can often clash on a range of issues. Now all 18 teams have decided to boycott the upcoming team time trial event at the World Championships in Qatar during October. You might not care too much for this event but the boycott is about a lot more than this one event.
The team time trial is a new event dating from 2012 and takes place on a Sunday as the opening event of a week of races. Like many novelties in cycling it takes time to become accepted. It stands out because the trade teams compete during a week otherwise reserved for national squads. It’s not been accepted from the start, many teams – especially those with no chance of winning – have resented having to pay money to fund the logistics of sending riders, staff, bikes and excess baggage just for a race that doesn’t get much media return.
As loyal readers will remember the annual road World Championships are a moneyspinner for the UCI. Here’s a slide from the UCI’s report and accounts for 2015:
The annual road Worlds bring in the host city fee, TV rights and sponsorship income, all with a very tasty margin. It’s the UCI’s the single largest income item.
The teams know this and so boycotting a race isn’t just a no-show for a race, it’s a hit to the concept of the Worlds as week of high level racing. The UCI won’t enjoy explaining to a Qatari Emir why the top teams have not showed up and if this boycott continues then the week’s racing is devalued.
Why the Boycott?
As mentioned at the top there’s the headline reason and there’s a deeper, structural issue. The headline problem is that the teams don’t want to pay to take part in an event that isn’t part of the World Tour. Here’s an excerpt of the AIGCP, the team’s body:
“This situation is highly irregular in the context of professional road cycling
- insofar as the WorldTour licence should only compel the teams that are granted one to take part in the events which are granted a WorldTour licence by an independent Licence Commission;
- and even when required to take part in a WorldTour event, WorldTeams are always granted a participation allowance to cover some of their costs;
- insofar as it evidences the fact that the governing body has passed exceptional legislation which solely favors the one road competition it owns and commercially exploits.”
The second bullet point is a reminder that all World Tour races pay teams a fee to take part, an often forgotten item when people call for revenues to be shared. Team Sky collected £3.8 million or 16% of their prodigious budget from these payments. Only this isn’t paid for the Worlds TTT race.
Given the way the UCI literally makes millions from the Worlds the simplest way to kill the issue is to pay the teams and perhaps make the Worlds TTT a item on the World Tour calendar. Therefore there can be no claims of exceptionalism.
Only to add the race to the calendar is going to annoy teams even more. The recent addition of new events to the World Tour calendar has frustrated many teams facing compulsory attendance at these new races, all with a fixed roster and the same budget. There’s been talk of letting off some teams from taking part in the new events on the calendar but so far it’s just that, there’s nothing in the rulebook for 2017 yet and teams are recruiting for next year not knowing what is coming.
The fact that it’s gone public rather than something that got settled in a conference room in a Swiss hotel brings us to the wider point. The teams want some more money and they’re not happy with the calendar so there’s a breakdown in communications and things go messy in public. Once again it’s a reminder that the UCI holds a weak hand. As written here before, it can only govern by consensus which means it can only pass rules and reforms if all the parties involved are willing. If not then things breakdown. See how the UCI had to scrap its original World Tour reforms after ASO wouldn’t accept them. Now the 2017 World Tour doesn’t please the teams.
What will happen?
The UCI told Cycling Weekly that they still expect the 18 teams to attend and expect “excellent participation”, adding they money generated by the teams is reinvested in developing the sport. That’s not very conciliatory but if the teams don’t show it’ll be hard to sanction them, the governing body is hardly going to refuse them all a licence for 2017.
One regrettable incident here will be a hit to the women’s race. The women’s pro teams will take part and it’s one of the rare events that attracts parity in TV coverage, it’s valuable to them and their sponsors. Only if the men’s teams are staying away then the event loses some it it’s lustre and some of the talk will be about the missing teams rather than the remaining ones.
The wider point is that the sport is stuck. We might hope UCI, the teams, the race organisers and others would operate in close formation just like team mates in a team time trial. They don’t have to be best friends, they just have to pull together. Only the World Tour reforms reveal they’re not so much riding in a paceline as pulling in different directions and going public with moves to sabotage each others chances. When this happens things get messy.
The team time trial at the Worlds has looked odd and confused people, a regular FAQ (answer here) is why are there no rainbow jerseys and why the pro teams showed up instead of national ones. It was created to promote the pro teams but they don’t want to take part in the show if it just costs them. However this is about more than travel expenses, if things were this simple they’d have been settled in private. Instead once again we get a public spat that makes the sport’s governance look dysfunctional. There’s no vision or leadership for the sport, just competing interests and structural stalemates.