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by Shane Stokes
December 22, 2015
Photography by Kristof Ramon
Commenting on last week’s declaration by ASO that it will remove the Tour de France plus its other events from the UCI WorldTour, the Velon teams’ association has said that it remains committed to the WorldTour reforms that are at the root of the dispute.
On Friday Tour organiser ASO said that it would move all of its events to the UCI Europe Tour calendar, registering the Tour as a 2.HC race. The significance of this is that it would reduce to 13 the maximum number of WorldTour teams that could potentially compete, shutting at least five out into the cold.
This in turn would create a massive instability in the sport, with the sponsors, management and riders connected to those teams no longer assured of a Tour de France place.
Responses to the issue were initially guarded – or, indeed, absent. One of the stakeholders, the team’s association AIGCP, has not answered requests for comment.
In contrast, Velon has now made its position known. It is a company representing 11 out of the 18 WorldTour teams, and states that it believes in the reforms the UCI has proposed.
Those reforms would see several tweaks made to the current system, including the introduction of extra WorldTour events plus the granting of three year licences to teams and races.
“Velon’s teams support the AIGCP position, which backs the UCI,” CEO Graham Bartlett said in response to questions from CyclingTips.
“As we said in September, we support these aims: we believe that reform offers a balanced framework for collaboration between stakeholders, and we remain committed to strive for a fairer, cleaner sport and build a future that fans, sponsors, riders, media and teams can all trust and believe in.”
Velon has not committed to taking any action at this point, presumably hoping that negotiations between the UCI and ASO might yet establish common ground.
The UCI responded to ASO’s shock announcement on Friday by saying that it was committed to carrying through those reforms.
The responses from others have been varied. The CPA, an association which represents riders, stated on Monday that it would only lend its backing if the other stakeholders were in agreement.
“The CPA does not agree with the UCI saying that the reform was adopted with the consent of all parties of cycling, including the riders,” it stated.
“The association of the riders was in fact in favour of it but [only] as long as all stakeholders, including the organizers, were also in favour of the new reform.
“The CPA has noticed in recent weeks that the organizers and especially the ASO, are unwilling to accept the new guidelines of the UCI which are radically different from the original project.”
It called on the UCI to take into account proposals of the different parties and also called on it to recognise the history of the sport.
“The association of the riders expressly asks the UCI to open the dialogue with all parties who have a sincere desire to participate constructively in the reform of cycling, to give our sport the respect it deserves.”
Some individual riders have also expressed their thoughts. UnitedHealthcare’s Lucas Euser, a founding board member of the Association of North American Professional Road Cyclists [ANAPRC], which itself is a member of the CPA, hinted at major frustration.
“ASO and UCI are fighting over power and supremacy in pro cycling,” he said on Twitter on Sunday December 20. “Meanwhile, riders silently amass behind the scenes. Change is imminent.”
BMC Racing Team’s Rohan Dennis was even more frank, making his frustration with ASO clear.
“It’s a bit slow BUT I say if the TDF is going HC then the Giro should move to July. Possibly see a massive growth in interest from riders…”
For Dennis, the possibility that riders and teams might consider riding the Giro instead of the Tour is something that he believes should be considered.
ASO is the most powerful race organiser in the sport and has flexed its muscles numerous times in the past. In the ten years it has resisted moves by the UCI to change the racing calendar, initially objecting to the establishment of the WorldTour’s predecessor, the UCI ProTour.
That led to a standoff between the organiser and the governing body. One team, Unibet, was caught in the crossfire and blocked from starting ASO’s events, ostensibly because of French gambling laws which ASO claimed clashed with the team’s title sponsor.
As a result of this the team collapsed in 2007, leaving riders and staff scrambling for jobs.
While Unibet’s treatment was unfair, it had scant backing from other teams. Instead, they kept their heads down, not willing to risk their own participation in the Tour.
Eight years on, the squads may be heading back into a position of real unpredictability. The WorldTour guaranteed a Tour start for all of its teams, thus helping them land sponsorship due to that guaranteed participation. ASO complied with that for many years, creating a more stable sport.
However now, apparently – or ostensibly, depending on your viewpoint – because of the reforms, it has decided that it will no longer accept this. Instead, it wants to be able to pick and choose the teams.
ASO has pointed the finger at the UCI as wanting what it terms a ‘closed sport system,’ perhaps missing the irony that what it is advocating is essentially the same.
When teams do not know if they will be riding the Tour de France or not, they are at the mercy of ASO, which can grant participation on whatever basis it likes.
It’s a fiefdom that can reward and punish, and which, as the Unibet example showed, could destroy any question of collective unity amongst teams.
Will, for example, the other Velon squads back one of its members if it is not selected for the Tour? If the 11 stand as one they have a collective power, and would be in a position of strength with ASO.
However if they don’t pull in the same direction, the same tactic of divide and conquer that ASO used before will be employed again.
As several have pointed out, there is over a year until ASO’s stated position would come into effect. There is a chance that its rejection of the WorldTour is simply a power play and that it will step back from this position after negotiations.
There is still time for some mutual compromise to be reached between it and the UCI. That said, what’s worrying is the latter insists that ASO didn’t raise objections at its recent WorldTour reform seminar in Barcelona.
It had a chance to do so, to engage with the other stakeholders, but instead went home and then exercised the nuclear option.
Will ASO relent? It’s far too soon to say. But, if Euser and Dennis’ position is reflective of riders in general, those within the peloton may have tired of being caught in the middle of the battles of others.
They’ve already been in a position to appreciate the stability of a set race calendar, knowing that their teams will be able to compete in all the top events.
Losing that certainty would be a huge worry, and may encourage riders to pull together in a way they haven’t done before.