Is the Amgen Tour of California caught in a battle between the UCI, ASO, and China’s richest man?

The peloton crests Patterson Pass in Livermore, CA, the second of three KOM points on the queen stage.

by Neal Rogers


When AEG announced the teams lineup for the 2016 Amgen Tour of California, which included 10 of the sport’s 17 WorldTour teams, initial reactions focused on the depth of the field and the quality of racing that will take place.

Among those scheduled to start include world champion and defending Amgen Tour champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), former world champion and nine-time California stage winner Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Tour of Flanders and Milan-San Remo winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), and 2012 Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins (Team Wiggins), who won the Amgen Tour in 2014.

The event, now in its 11th year, is the most important stage race in the U.S. and is vying to be one of the most important races on the international calendar — if it isn’t already.

A closer look at recent happenings, however, reveals that the Amgen Tour may well be caught up in a battle between the biggest power brokers in pro cycling, with nothing less than the future of the sport at stake.

Last year, race owners AEG Sports announced that they would be transferring management of the race from U.S. based Medalist Sports, which had run race operations since the inaugural event in 2006, to French company Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), owners of the Tour de France, the sports daily L’Equipe, and many other events.

ASO had already managed TV production at the Amgen Tour for several years, bundling its broadcast rights along with other ASO events such as Paris-Roubaix, Critérium du Dauphiné, and the Vuelta a España.

With ASO now working more closely on California, the only thing keeping the event from falling neatly under the umbrella of the French organisation is the actual ownership. AEG Sports, owned by Phil Anschutz, has owned the event since its inception. ASO operates, but does not own, several events, such as the tours in Qatar and Oman.

And though it’s hard to know from the outside what effect ASO’s race management will have on this year’s edition, what is clear is that the 2016 roster is arguably the highest-profile in the event’s 11-year history. (Worth mention is the 2009 edition, then held in February, which included the return of Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso, and Floyd Landis, as well as classics specialists Tom Boonen, Thor Hushovd, and Fabian Cancellara.)

Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick Step), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) , and Sergio Henao (Team Sky) on the final podium of the 2015 Amgen Tour of California. Photo Brian Hodes/Cor Vos.
A WorldTour podium: Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick Step), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) , and Sergio Henao (Team Sky) on the final podium of the 2015 Amgen Tour of California. Photo Brian Hodes/Cor Vos.

WorldTour in the balance

The four-stage Amgen Tour of California Women’s Race will double as the first North American stage race of the inaugural Women’s WorldTour, which begs the question — how long until there’s a U.S. stop on the men’s WorldTour? And wouldn’t the Amgen Tour be a natural first choice?

It’s a discussion that’s come up before; the race was rumoured to become a WorldTour event in 2011. However, behind the scenes, the landscape of professional cycling has changed dramatically since then.

One drawback to America’s most important stage race becoming a WorldTour event is that Continental teams would not be allowed to compete. That roadblock would create a significant deterrent to the development of the sport in the U.S., keeping both younger riders and their sponsors off the biggest stage in the country. If this year’s race were a WorldTour event, it’s not just teams like Rally, Jelly Belly, Axeon Hagens Berman, and Holowesko-Citadel that would be prohibited from racing — Team Wiggins would also be on the sidelines.

The bigger issue, however, is the fate of the WorldTour, which currently hangs in the balance.

ASO has threatened to pull its events from the WorldTour in 2017 as a response to the UCI’s wish to extend WorldTour licenses to teams from two to three years, as part of its proposed WorldTour reform. ASO rejected the reforms, saying it would create a “closed sport system.”

While teams want three-year WorldTour licenses to ensure stability, ASO claims that three-year licenses would compromise the quality of its races, insisting that teams should prove their worth every year.

It’s possible, then, that ASO’s growing involvement in the Amgen Tour is part of its plan to expand globally, independent of the UCI.

ASO recently announced that it was making steps to resurrect the Deutschland Tour, adding Germany to the list of countries outside of France where it owns or operates events. Others include Qatar, Oman, Spain, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Two WorldTour events currently exist in North America — the one-day Grands Prix Cyclistes de Québec et de Montréal, held in September, owned and operated by Serge Arsenault’s Groupe Serdy, which also owns the Évasion and Zeste television networks, Zeste magazine, production company Serdy Vidéo and postproduction studio idHD.

Arsenault has previously hinted at launching a one-day WorldTour event in the U.S., perhaps in Philadelphia, in 2017. “It’s important to understand that without a major race in the United States, it’s difficult to pretend we have a real WorldTour,” he told Cyclingnews in a November 2014 interview.

And while the UCI has publicly stated that its goal is to globalise the sport, ASO is doing the same, privately, on its own terms.

ASO-Wanda-WTC-InFront-Velon-UCI.small
Battle lines are being drawn between Amaury Sports Organisation and its many, historic events, and a new consortium owned by China’s Wanda Sports Holding Company. Graphic by Chris Dore.

Battle lines being drawn?

Any expansion into the WorldTour will depend on what happens with ASO, which is currently waging battles on two fronts.

While it fights with the UCI to protect its control over which teams are invited to its races, ASO also faces a growing threat from InFront Sports and Media, the marketing group led by Philippe Blatter, nephew of former FIFA head Sepp Blatter, and owned by Wanda Sports Holding, one of many companies under the umbrella of Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man.

In recent months Wanda Sports has acquired World Triathlon Corporation, owner of the Ironman brand and race series, which in turn acquired the Lagardère Sports endurance division, which includes the Hamburg Cyclassics WorldTour event, several smaller UCI races, and the company’s partnership with the UCI to produce the Velothon cycling event series.

InFront, which owns and operates the Tour de Suisse as part of its partnership with Swiss media group Ringier, also recently partnered with Velon, the business venture owned by 11 shareholding WorldTour teams that has been at odds with ASO over on-board camera footage and data telemetry from the peloton. Teams feel that anything tied to a rider’s bike belongs to them; ASO believes on-bike footage falls under its own media rights, and countered by launching a telemetry system at the 2015 Tour de France, in partnership with Dimension Data.

Bringing this all full circle, Andrew Messick, the CEO of Ironman, served as president of AEG Sports and executive director of the Amgen Tour of California from 2007 to 2011. If Wanda Sports is looking for someone to help it manage cycling events, it has options in Germany, Switzerland, and in Messick’s case, Tampa, Florida.

In November 2015, when Blatter was named head of Wanda Sports, Messick was identified to oversee the participation sports division, rather than spectator sports. However Messick told CyclingTips that his division includes event management.

“The way we are looking to organize Wanda Sports, there is an active lifestyle component.” Messick said. “We (Ironman) are largely an event management organisation. That is what we do; we operate events. And it is where we will be focusing our time and efforts. The core of InFront’s business is media production and distribution, and rights representation. Events organisation is where [Ironman] will play a leadership role in the company. Over time we will be more involved with InFront’s mass-participation initiatives, and we will do that in China, Europe, and other parts of the world.”

In terms of the Amgen Tour of California, Messick’s successor, AEG executive vice president Kristin Klein, said that AEG would “always” own and operate the Amgen Tour of California.

“We’ve been partners with ASO for seven years now, so this isn’t a sudden partnering” Klein said. “ASO has managed our television production, and international distribution, for years – and now they are handling race operations as well. As we enter a new decade of the Amgen Tour of California, we have chosen to do more with ASO. But AEG still owns and operates the race, and that’s not going to change.”

In the world of sports and entertainment, AEG is a major player; the Amgen Tour is but a small piece of its holdings. AEG Sports owns the LA Kings NHL team and three hockey franchises in Europe, as well as the Hammarby Futbol Club, in Sweden. AEG Sports exists under the umbrella organisation owned by billionaire businessman Philip Anschutz that also includes AEG Live, the world’s second largest presenter of live music and entertainment events behind Live Nation. (AEG is the acronym for Anschutz Entertainment Group.)

Messick shared Klein’s sentiments regarding AEG and the position of the Amgen Tour.

“What is important for people to understand is that ASO isn’t running the Amgen Tour of California — AEG is running the Amgen Tour of California,” he said. “The people who will determine the future of that race is the team at AEG. AEG has a great partnership with ASO that Kristin and I started years ago, and that partnership has been expanded. People would be misinformed to view it as ASO’s race, because it isn’t. AEG will ultimately make the determination about the future of the race, and what it becomes. I know partnering with ASO has been a good partnership for AEG, and I know it’s a partnership AEG values highly.”

However, asked if ASO should view the Wanda-InFront-WTC-Lagardère-Velothon conglomerate — and its alliance with Velon — as a threat, Messick’s reply was measured. (An ASO spokesman did not return a request for comment on this story.)

“We will be more active in the sport of cycling in the coming years, and we are going to look to partner with those with common interests,” Messick said. “I think that there is a need in the sport of cycling for there to be organisations prepared to demonstrate leadership in growing and developing the sport. ASO has been a leader for decades, and I think there are others that have the capability to demonstrate leadership in cycling as well.

“I think that initiatives that makes the pie bigger will benefit ASO,” he continued. “With their position, with Vuelta, Tour de France, Dauphine, all the one-day races, Paris-Nice… if all of this activity is successful in making cycling a more popular sport, ASO will benefit. They just will. And that’s where we would like everyone to focus: How do you make the pie bigger? That’s how everyone wins.”

Many interests, endless questions, fewer answers. This much is clear —  what was once positioned as a battle between the ASO, UCI, and the sport’s top teams over revenue derived from TV rights has turned into a much bigger power struggle, and will likely impact the direction professional cycling takes in the foreseeable future.

And in May, on the roads of California, we’ll see the rainbow jersey and several other top riders competing at an event that, like many, is inextricably caught in the middle.

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