Velon, the group of 11 World Tour teams, has announced it will file a complaint with the European Commission against the UCI. Here’s a closer look at the issues concerned.
First Velon, it’s a London-based company owned by BORA-hansgrohe, CCC Team, Deceuninck – Quick-Step, EF Education First, Lotto Soudal, Mitchelton-SCOTT, Team INEOS, Team Jumbo-Visma, Team Sunweb, Trek-Segafredo and UAE Team Emirates. Velon itself was born out of “Project Avignon” when teams met on a rest day of the 2013 Tour de France to try and work together so they could push back against the UCI and ASO by working together. This led to them contributing money to form Velon, they each own shares in the venture. Since then it negotiates with RCS and ASO over onboard cameras and live race data at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France respectively and runs the Hammer races. It also acts as a collective and lobbies on behalf of member teams. You might remember the vocal “ASO must share revenues” complaints of old which have dried up these days as the teams discovered there just wasn’t much money to share in the first place. But there’s still lobbying and debate and in recent years there have been various spats over the calendar and other flashpoints.
This week’s announcement of a complaint seems to be over two issues. First is the use of the word “series”. Seriously, here’s an excerpt from Velon’s press release:
In February the UCI ruled that Hammer Races may not be referred to as a Series under UCI regulations. No explanation has ever been given.
One likely explanation is that the UCI is rebranding its calendar for 2020, there will be the World Tour and then below that, the “UCI ProSeries” and also the one day races are supposed to be rebranded as the “UCI Classics Series”. With this in mind it looks like the UCI wants to reserve the term “series” for its calendar. This does seem petty on both sides, for starters the UCI branding just isn’t visible or strong enough, people inside the sport today still talk about the “Pro Tour” when this label was dropped years ago so a Hammer Series here or there shouldn’t matter that much, especially as they’re somewhat marginal events. Similarly is going to the European Commission over the word Series a good use of Velon’s time and money when they could just rebrand with a synonym. But perhaps this is one of those classic “small differences”, a tiny issue but binary enough to go to war on.
The second issue in the complaint is over live race data, you might remember seeing on-screen captions showing speed or power from races. Here’s the press release again:
the UCI passed new technical regulations without due process or consultation with any of the stakeholders in the sport (even with its own Equipment and Technology Fraud Commission) that sought to give itself and race organisers ownership and control over the teams’ business on live race data.
Here the question is who owns this data, does it belong to the race or the teams. Both can stake a good claim but until now it’s been the teams have been paid a small sum for the data (sidenote: ASO don’t pay for power data, the thinking is that since plenty of cyclists struggle to interpret watts, the mass market audience would be bamboozled; but they have struck a deal with Velon over the use of on-bike camera footage).
The Rule Change
What’s changed now? Well now we need to open up the UCI rulebook for 2020 and flick through to Chapter II, Rule 2.12.007.3.5.3:
This is new for 2020 and the rule says any rider and/or member of team staff who won’t install a timing or tracking device will be blocked from racing, or if they remove the device mid-race, disqualified and any team staff in on this will be excluded from the race too. Now imagine if a race organiser like RCS or ASO says “here is our tracking device, use it” then until now the teams, fronted by Velon, would say “pay us” and now the race organiser can say “use it or get thrown out”. So this little rule is a big deal especially for Velon which derives some of its income from these devices.
Now if you’re still reading a quick word on the procedural aspect. This is going to be filing with the European Commission over anti-trust procedures and it’s about as far removed as you can get from a quick filing with a civil court. It’s about as high as you can go and it’s very slow, the Commission is likely to spend a while deliberating over whether to hear the case and should it agree to proceed it’ll be slow, we’re possibly talking years. Who knows which way the verdict will go? It might seem odd to see Velon, an entity soon to be based outside of the EU tasking the European Commission over the actions of a Swiss governing body but given the UCI’s rules apply in Europe there’s scope for the EU. But the UCI is a non-profit sports governing body and so it could be harder to go after under the rules normally reserved for business, especially as EU law has some precedent for “sporting exemption”. Initiated in a case won by the UCI in 1974, sports are sometimes partially exempt from EU laws on business, state aid and so on but there’s been trend to reducing this. The short version of this is all is that Velon’s legal action looks like a long range speculative action which should test EU law.
A big deal over a small issue. The racing should carry on as usual but behind the scenes the arguments between the teams and the UCI continue, the upshot is that some of the proposed reforms will probably get delayed and diluted again. One little rule change by the UCI looks to have triggered this, it’s a small addition but a big deal for Velon as it potentially cuts off their negotiating leverage for selling live telemetry; plus if the UCI is trying to reserve the “series” label then that’s a spanner in the wheel for Velon’s Hammer Series. But going to the European Commission over this, it’s a big deal, it’ll test if the UCI can govern the sport. As a third party the teams can use Velon to sue the UCI this way without headlines of “major teams sue governing body” which would make the sport look chaotic… even if this is actually what is happening. It shows the mistrust between some of the big teams and the UCI with neither side apparently willing to accommodate the other, even over the use of a particular word.