The future of the Tour Down Under: what the UCI WorldTour reforms might mean

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After years spent trying to reform the WorldTour — the highest level of men’s professional road cycling — the UCI is just weeks away from what is likely to be an important milestone in that reform process. The proposed changes to the WorldTour, which are planned to come into effect at the start of the 2017 season, are being presented to the UCI’s Management Committee at the Road World Championships in Richmond, USA, later this month.

So what does the reform process mean for races on the WorldTour, the Tour Down Under in particular? CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef spoke to UCI vice president Tracey Gaudry and Tour Down Under race director Mike Turtur to find out.

The importance of the January time-slot

One of the criticisms leveled at the existing WorldTour calendar is the fact it runs from January, with the Tour Down Under, right through to October, with Il Lombardia — a nearly-10-month period that some believe is too long.

In discussions about the future of the WorldTour, one suggestion that has emerged is the possibility of moving the Tour Down Under from January to February. This would shorten the existing gap of more than a month between the TDU and the next WorldTour race on the calendar: Paris-Nice, held in early March.

But as Tour Down Under race director Mike Turtur told CyclingTips, there’s an important reason the TDU is held in January.

“From our point of view the January time slot was done by design — it wasn’t just by accident,” Turtur said. “If you want to make comparisons, the Tour de France is the biggest event in the world and the things that work for the Tour are the same elements that we proposed in 1999 for our race.

“The Tour de France is in the European summer, our race is in the Australian summer which is ideal for tourism.”

The Tour Down Under is held during school holidays, the perfect time of year for cycling fans and families from around Australia to venture to Adelaide to watch the race. This tourism component is not just a vital ingredient in the race’s success; it’s the reason the race began.

“[The TDU] was pitched as a tourism event not a bike race,” Turtur told CyclingTips. “Therefore it makes sense and it’s really important that it’s during the holiday period.”

As Mike Turtur explained, moving the Tour Down Under to February, out of the school holiday period, could have a devastating impact on the event.

“It would jeopardise the race,” Turtur said. “The fact is this event is a tourism event. And as soon as those numbers drop off you’re going to be in trouble.

“Governments and organisations that support events like this are supporting not because they like bike riding, but because it’s a good tourism event. It brings to South Australia economic benefit and visitation that is at the level that is acceptable to them to support.

“Moving it out of January would not be a good thing for the race. That’s like moving the Tour de France to May. The Tour de France people would scream — they just wouldn’t allow it to happen because it would severely affect their race.”

UCI process from here

While the UCI’s plans to reform the WorldTour have been well documented in recent years, it’s unclear exactly how the sport’s top level will look in 2017 and beyond, even to race directors like Mike Turtur.

“Everything’s on the table as of the close of 2016,” Turtur said. “Until that time no-one knows what the final outcome’s going to be. There’s a lot of things that haven’t been decided.”

Tracey Gaudry is UCI vice president and the president of the Oceania Cycling Confederacy. As she explained to CyclingTips, the reform process has been underway for some time with an important new phase about to begin.

“The reform process is being coordinated and facilitated by the Professional Cycling Council, which is a council appointed by the UCI and includes a couple of key stakeholders in men’s professional cycling,” Gaudry said.

“That’s due to present to the Management Committee a proposal for the future [WorldTour] model, at the September Management Committee of the UCI which is taking place in Richmond in conjunction with the World Championships.”

The Management Committee will get to see the reform proposal before the meeting and then deal with any sticking points in Richmond.

“Once [the reform proposal has] been endorsed by the Management Committee — which is the body authorised to approve reform of this nature — that will then kick into gear,” Gaudry explained. “Only after that will the process for the determination of the events in the future WorldTour [take place]”.

The process by which events will apply to be part of the future WorldTour (the name of which is yet to be revealed) isn’t yet clear but according to Gaudry “that’s part of what we’ll see in September”.

Goals of the reform

The UCI has been working on reforms to the WorldTour for several years now. The initial proposals were ‘sweeping’ but disagreement between the UCI and key stakeholders — including Tour de France owner ASO which threatened to pull its races out of the WorldTour earlier this year — has since seen a scaling back of the scope of the reforms.

As Tracey Gaudry told CyclingTips: “The reform’s gone from a massive, radical overhaul of the whole system to one that’s slightly more moderate.”

As it stands, the majority of events on the existing WorldTour calendar appear set to remain in the future WorldTour from 2017 onwards.

“Basically, the events that are currently part of the WorldTour, largely those events are long-term, very well established events,” Gaudry said. “So [those] events are rightfully considered to be well-placed to be part of the future WorldTour.”

It’s unclear whether the latest reform proposal will include a two-tier system for WorldTour events, as was proposed in the past.

Regardless, Gaudry and the UCI remain convinced that a WorldTour reform is necessary.

“It’s about ensuring there’s a system that helps the teams to become more viable over the long term, the events to maintain their standing and status [and] providing a system and a season that all of the sectors of the cycling industry can not only thrive but grow [in],” Gaudry told CycingTips.

Future of the TDU

So where to from here for the Tour Down Under? Race director Mike Turtur believes he and his team have made a strong case to the UCI to suggest that the race should remain in January.

“I’m quite confident that our race has done enough over its 18-year period — we’ll celebrate 18 years in January — in the eyes of the UCI … and how we’ve presented the race each year,” Turtur said. “I think the UCI are more than happy with what’s happened here and it suits their objective about globalisation in many respects.

“Everything we’re hearing so far indicates that [the UCI is] listening to what we’re saying. I think the calendar reform can exist and be very successful from January through to September. I think they can tidy it up in a couple of areas and have a good calendar.

“I think everything being equal, we should be ok.”

While she couldn’t give a firm assurance about the Tour Down Under’s future, Gaudry echoed Turtur’s sentiments about the value of the race.

“The Tour Down Under has been long regarded by UCI, prior to achieving WorldTour status [ed. in 2008] and since then, as being an admirable start to the WorldTour season,” Gaudry said. “This is given where it is in the Southern Hemisphere, the time of year, and the phase in which the athletes are preparing themselves for the upcoming season,” Gaudry said.

“What I can say is it’s very well placed to remain as a staple part of the WorldTour. Whether it sits at the end of January or the start of February is arbitrary.”

With Australian school holidays tending to finish in the last week of January, a February date for the 2017 Tour Down Under would put it outside peak tourist season.

When TDU organisers will find out about the race’s future

It’s not yet clear when organisers of the Tour Down Under (and indeed other WorldTour events) will know whether their event will be held at the same time of year and at the same level in 2017. But Tracey Gaudry is quick to acknowledge that race organisers need plenty of notice if the reforms are going to change the time or status of their race.

“The bigger issue is releasing the reform program ASAP and setting out a process that’s very efficient so that organisers can plan well in advance for 2017,” Gaudry said. “We understand it is critical to maintain the confidence in the cycling industry that event organisers — who are very much reliant upon government and external support — can sure up their events and their timing as soon as possible.”

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