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by Dan Schmalz
January 21, 2016
Photography by Kristof Ramon
With the start of the Tour de San Luis and Santos Tour Down Under, the off season has officially drawn to a close for professional cycling. Team-building exercises are over, Peter Sagan has packed up his Danny Zuko costume, and in what is becoming as predictable as yet another Who farewell tour, the ASO and UCI are engaging in a slap fight over the Tour de France.
This year’s squabble is about ASO deciding that their cycling events will now be Hors Categorie (HC) races instead of WordTour races — a change which, on its surface seems like a minor transformation (like Puff Daddy changing his name to P. Diddy, and back again).
But unlike the evolution of Sean Jean Combs, there will be real ramifications from the ASO’s decision to demote their events.
It may seem minor, but this auto-reclassification from ASO is a shot across the bow in the war over who controls pro cycling.
The Tour de France is by far the largest event in professional cycling. Or, to put it in terms that anyone can understand, if cycling is Destiny’s Child, the Tour is Beyoncé, and every other race is the other two girls — you know, Kelly and the other one.
ASO owns the Tour de France, along with several other races that are in no way carry the status of the Tour (sorry Vuelta, you’re totally a Kelly). Because the Tour is “Queen B,” ASO wants to be in charge of everything that has to do with the Tour, especially when it comes to choosing which teams get to participate in the Tour. (Spoiler alert: They usually pick French teams).
The Tour de France is in many ways a three-week rolling reality TV show. There’s action, drama, body spray, bleeding, and public urination — everything you’d want in a reality TV show, really.
Deciding which teams are cast in ASO’s summer reality show wields a lot of influence, because for most teams, not being selected for the Tour often means no longer existing as a team.
The UCI wants in on casting the Tour de France, because the UCI wants cycling to become more like Formula 1, where the governing body gets a split of the operating profit, a large percentage of which comes from F1’s TV broadcasting rights.
But this will never happen, because the ASO owns the Tour and the rights to broadcast the Tour, and they will never, ever give them up.
Giving up those rights would be the business-decision equivalent of punching oneself in the groin (or changing your name back to Puff Daddy.)
And the UCI trying to emulate F1 is also unrealistic because people aren’t cars. Formula 1 can have all of its biggest stars at every race because cars, unlike people, don’t get tired, or break bones. No professional bike racer can hope to enter every race on the WorldTour calendar, or even every race deemed “most important.” It’s not possible.
So racers and teams pick which events they want to focus on, and given the choice, most of them would choose to race the Tour, because money and fame. As Beyoncé once sang, “If you ain’t gettin’ money, then you ain’t got nothing for me.”
So we have a standoff between the UCI and the ASO, and we will continue to have this standoff until one of them gives in, or dies. It’s like Highlander, but starring old European men, instead of Sean Connery, and they’re wearing suits, instead of peacock feathers.
The UCI and the ASO are in many ways redundant organizations. They will always butt heads over who decides which teams are invited to the Tour de France. The UCI wants to use its ranking system (which, as far as I can tell, employs a WTF and LOL-based points system) to decide which teams attend the Tour, while the ASO wants to pick whichever teams they feel will make the best reality TV show.
This casting battle is bad for the sport, because teams can’t guarantee to sponsors that they’ll be in the Tour, and that’s trouble because most sponsors only care about one thing — getting onstage with Beyoncé.
Dan has been heckled on the internet for over a decade at nyvelocity.com, where he co-wrote a cartoon about pro cycling until the guy who drew the pictures quit in disgust. He has raced bikes in the New York City area for over 20 years with almost no success whatsoever. He holds the Strava KOM for his driveway, and spends the majority of his time yelling at people to stay off his driveway. Follow him on Twitter.