The question about cycling’s economic future is one which has become more and more relevant as the gulf between the budgets of the sport’s teams grow. Sky and select others have annual budgets believed to be approximately €40 million, and have long term guarantees of backing. Others exist on a year-by-year basis, introducing a great uncertainty into the sport.
The Velon group was set up with the goal of trying to produce greater economic stability for teams but, according to director and board member Simon Thompson, Tour de France organiser ASO is taking a protectionist approach and is trying to foil its plans. Tinkoff-Saxo owner Oleg Tinkov has already said he is willing to boycott the Tour if necessary in order to push back at ASO. For Thompson, such a tactic is a last resort for Velon; he hopes a compromise is reached before the situation deteriorates any further. But things need to change soon.
On the surface Dimension Data’s introduction of rider tracking at the Tour de France appeared to be a win-win situation for many concerned.
Thanks to the trackers under each rider’s saddle plus the other technology in place, race organiser ASO had extra data on hand as regards the location of riders and time gaps between various groups.
Broadcasters were able to benefit from the extra information. Fans could also use the data to better understand what was happening at any given point in a stage.
However for those who had been following the sport closely, the development was one which hinted at brimming tension behind the scenes.
Why? Well, months previously, the Velon group had said that rider tracking was one of several additions it hoped to introduce to pro cycling. This, on-bike cameras within the peloton and other measures were part of its leverage to push for a revenue source outside the traditional team sponsorship model.
ASO’s launching of its own rider tracking system appeared to be in part a reaction to that. Heading off Velon at the pass, so to speak.
Thus far signs of tension have been limited. The biggest example of potential problems came in June when the Reuters news agency reported that ASO had sent a letter to the UCI threatening to withdraw its races from the international calendar over proposed reforms.
According to Reuters, ASO was dissatisfied with delays in said reforms being implemented. However a source close to a UCI WorldTour team told CyclingTips at the time that the real issue was with the proposed three year licences the UCI considered giving teams.
He stated that ASO felt that such licences would limit its influence over the sport, and was reacting to that.
Now, almost two months later, one of Velon’s senior figures has spoken of his concern about the situation, saying that cycling could be heading towards a major conflict if measures are not taken to build bridges.
It’s worrying, and something which could have a detrimental effect on the future of the sport.
“We are coming up against some pretty powerful opposition”
Australian Simon Thompson is the director of Sports Marketing and Racing at the Trek Bicycle company. He’s also a director and board member of Velon, a group launched last November and which represents 11 of the 18 WorldTour teams.
Velon has several goals, but one of the biggest is to try to create what it terms a new and better economic future for the sport.
Thompson spoke at length to CyclingTips and said that while he believed that Velon was a positive force, that he had some concerns with how others were reacting towards it.
“I think that with the backing of the teams by Velon, I believe we are heading in the right direction,” he said. “But we are coming up against some pretty powerful opposition right now.”
Asked to elaborate, Thompson said that he needed to be guarded in what he said. However he confirmed that the Tour de France organisers were the opposition he referred to.
“I have met Yann Le Moenner [ASO CEO – ed.] a couple of times and I think he is a nice guy,” he elaborated. “I think he is a really good businessman and he is personal friends with John Burke, who owns Trek. But I do see the ASO as being the big block in all of this.
“They have built a really nice business and I congratulate them on what they have done to build it, but to me I think it [their stance – ed.] is very short-sighted. No-one wants to take away from what ASO has got or what they have built. But everyone says, ‘you have have to look at the big picture here. The sport doesn’t look good if you have got a revolving door of teams of athletes and it is inconsistent.’
As Thompson points out, teams currently survive because of a sponsorship model that is increasingly under pressure. Certain teams such as Sky have the backing of major international brands, and can plan ahead.
At the same time, others are struggling to compete and to also have any amount of long-term security.
Thompson and others argue that new revenue streams must be found in order for teams to have better stability and for the sport as a whole to grow.
However he is convinced that ASO doesn’t agree.
“If they were willing to work together with the teams, I think we can evolve this and grow it really substantially. To have it become one of the biggest and best sports in the world,” he explained.
“But unfortunately from what I can tell, they don’t see it that way. They believe that they should have all of the rights. To be the only body who can exploit those rights and that the teams should have no rights whatsoever.
“It is really disappointing. It is a shame. I believe a collaborative approach would get us to where everyone wants to go and, in the long term, they would be making a lot more money that way.”
“Every other organiser sees that model as the way to go”
During the 2000s a major schism developed between the UCI and ASO over the ProTour, which was the previous incarnation of the WorldTour. ASO objected to this, seeing it as a threat to its grip on the sport’s top events.
At one point the organisation’s Paris-Nice race was run as a national event, with ASO taking it off the UCI calendar. The UCI instructed teams not to take part but, fearing a backlash from ASO, those teams refused to comply with this request and competed in the event.
The dispute threatened to degenerate further, with the 17 ProTour teams riding in the 2008 Tour de France stating that they would not apply for ProTour licences in 2009.
An uneasy peace was eventually reached and things settled down once again.
Seven years later tension has returned. This time around ASO is objecting to the UCI’s reforms and also to efforts by Velon teams to find new revenue streams.
Thompson confirmed that the Dimension Data arrangement in place at the Tour was likely a bid to encroach on Velon’s own plans.
“I think they are well aware that Velon has been making plans in this space and we were a long way down the track in developing solutions for that,” he said.
“I think they reacted quickly to try and own that space. I think unfortunately they rushed at it too quickly and they sort of found a solution that I don’t think is what everyone wants.”
Thompson’s suggestion is borne out by the teething problems Dimension Data experienced at the Tour, with much of the first two weeks seeing inconsistent performance from what was labelled a beta service.
“It certainly fell short of most people’s expectations of what it could be,” he said. “From our research there are much better ways to do it that give a much more holistic solution.
“We did it as a one-off test. I don’t see it as a problem for us moving forward giving them precedence. It was a one-off test.
“We did it and we tried to help make it as good as it could be. I honestly think the teams are the ones who should be doing that in the future. There are other races beside ASO races. The one consistent thing is that the teams are at every race and the broadcasters are at every race, while the race organisers and the events change.
“Because of that I believe that it should be the teams who are the ones who should be bringing that to the races. I think we can do that best.
“We are happy to share that with the organisers as well. Every other organiser sees that model as the way to go. It is only the ASO who don’t see it that way.
ASO “drawing a line in the sand”
Velon is due to meet again around the time the Vuelta a España takes place. It is talking to other teams and Thompson believes that the number of affiliated squads will grow. He knows that the more that come on board, the greater the leverage they have in dealing with ASO and any other stakeholders in the sport.
“The teams do have the resolve to work together on this. We realise that the only strength we have is in numbers and in working together that allows us to do that,” he said.
That collaboration is Velon’s greatest advantage. It is also something which scares ASO, which has been able to use divide and conquer tactics in the past. It knows that if teams pull together as a block they now have much more influence as a stakeholder, and can push for real change in the sport.
Thompson’s concern is that the Tour organisers are not interested in negotiating, but instead want a conflict to take place.
“From what I can see right now, they are drawing a line in the sand. They are almost willing the teams to try to take that step,” he said. “They are trying to build their empire. They are going to try to build whatever they can to try to block Velon and to block the teams from anything that they plan to do.
“Unfortunately I think it is going to come to a head at some point in the next 12 months. I am not sure when. I certainly hope that it is not the fans who have to suffer through it, but I think it is going to come to a head.”
Traditionally ASO’s greatest leverage was Tour de France participation. It knew that it was vitally important for teams to take part, and was able to use that as a tool when it wanted to exercise power.
The ProTour/WorldTour system brought with it automatic participation rights for member teams, and this was one of the reasons why ASO was so opposed to it.
Asked if he believed that things could degenerate to the point where teams felt they had to boycott the Tour, Thompson said that it was a possibility but that he hoped it wouldn’t be the case.
“I don’t think anyone wants to do that. We all want to participate in the major events, but at the same time we are running out of leverage. They really believe that they have got the jewel in the crown.
“I do think there are other ways of going about it and I would like to think we would consider taking those routes before we have to get to something that comes to that.”
Given its size and media reach, the Tour is one of the most important targets of the year for all of the teams in the peloton. However, given the notion of short-term pain versus long-term gain, Thompson said that he believes most of the Velon teams would take that route if it was necessary.
“They are not as afraid of it as what ASO thinks we are, but I do hope there are different avenues to take that would be better to pursue in the first place.”
He believes clearly that negotiation and understanding is vital, not confrontation.
“I would like to think that ASO won’t just become so brutally blunt in trying to block it,” he said. “We are not trying to steal from them or take away what they have built up in any way whatsoever. We just want to see the sport progress.
“We would love to work with them on that. We absolutely would.
“Unfortunately, so far, we haven’t had any indications of them wanting to do the same thing.”