Explainer: The UCI and the teams are locked in a power struggle. Why?

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The 2020 season is ticking along, but behind the scenes, all is not well in the sport of professional cycling, with an ongoing dispute between the sport’s governing body and the teams continuing to escalate.

If you’ve got a passing interest in the sport’s governance, you’ll have seen signs of a widening divide and intensifying power-struggle between the various parties. If not, you shouldn’t write this one off as mere bureaucracy.

Here’s your primer to a pretty spicy squabble.

Who’s involved?

There are a few parties thrashing about in this quagmire. Let’s start with a little acronym breakdown.

  • The UCI – we’ll assume you know about them, but just in case – are the sport’s governing body, based in Switzerland. Leading the organisation since late 2017 is an articulate Frenchman called David Lappartient.
  • The AIGCP (Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels) is a representative body of the cycling teams.
  • The PCC (Professional Cycling Council) is a council of 12 representatives which governs the UCI WorldTour, made up by a mixed bag of representatives from across the sport.
  • And finally, there’s Velon: a separate entity owned by 11 professional cycling teams, who are the organisers of the Hammer Series and have worked to bring innovations like on-bike cameras and telemetrics into the broadcast of the sport.
UCI President David Lappartient and a visibly delighted Michal Kwiatkowski, prior to the 2017 Road World Championship race in Bergen, Norway.

What’s the beef?

The relationship between the UCI and the other bodies has been strained for some time, but things really kicked off in early October 2019 when the AIGCP sent an open letter to the UCI complaining about what it perceived as general ineptitude and specific interference in the commercial side of the sport.

The AIGCP’s grievances were broad, touching on the following themes:

  • Perceived failure from the UCI to do enough for rider safety, along with gripes about inconsistency of refereeing, such as Nils Eekhoff’s disqualification at the Yorkshire Worlds.
  • Lack of rights for the teams, with unequal representation on the 12 person PCC – in which the UCI has six representatives, versus two for the AIGCP – despite the majority of the financial investment and skin in the game being borne by the teams.
  • The UCI’s alleged manipulation of PCC meetings and agendas to favour its own interests.
  • An expansion of the WorldTour racing calendar to 180 race days – beyond the 154 that the teams originally agreed to – with the AIGCP claiming that this is against the interests of the riders and teams, while simultaneously providing commercial or political benefits to the UCI through licensing fees or by building favour with national federations or race organisers.
  • The introduction of national events – like the new team relay at the World Championships replacing the (trade) Team Time Trial, and the addition of continental championships to the calendar – both of which remove an opportunity for riders to race in their team colours. [Ed: Interestingly, the AIGCP previously requested that the trade team time trial be removed from the calendar, so it’s somewhat curious to see them complaining about its replacement now].
  • The UCI’s regulation of Velon and its on-board devices.

Hang on, isn’t there a thing between Velon and the UCI, too?

Yep.

Velon – a business representing and owned by 11 current WorldTour teams, with four other WorldTour teams and several other ProTeams loosely affiliated – is the owner of the Hammer Series. This series currently operates in three locations (Stavanger, Limburg, and Hong Kong when it’s not being torn apart by protests), providing a spectator-friendly race format and innovative broadcasting, along with theoretically giving the teams a financial return from the viewing rights and licensing.

Deceuninck-QuickStep winning the Limburg Hammer Chase event, 2019.

However, Velon and the UCI are currently locked in a struggle that has gone all the way to the European Commission. In late October, Velon filed an antitrust complaint against the UCI that is in large part based around the use of one word – ‘series’ – which you are about to read a bunch of times in the next sentence.

UCI reforms have recast its calendar as three ‘series’ – the WorldTour ‘series’, ProSeries ‘series’, and a new Classics ‘series’; any other series outside of these tiers (like, say, the Hammer Series) will be ineligible for UCI licenses. Cue Velon’s complaint, which in one sense hinges on a single bit of terminology but is also built on a long history of grievances between the various stakeholders and the UCI.

And whilst the Velon beef isn’t the same thing as the AIGCP beef, the two have quite a few parallels, and also make the teams feel like they’re being stymied by the UCI on two fronts.

So where are things now?

The most recent flashpoint in this squabble has come with the revelation that the UCI has allocated €1 million to legal fees in its battle against Velon. The problem is that those funds are being drawn from a special reserve fund that teams and race organisers contribute to, leading some within the sport to feel like the UCI is using the team’s money to fight against the team’s interests.

What’s the UCI’s stance on all this?

The UCI, for its part, feels that it’s equally hard done by.

In a roundtable with media including CyclingTips at the Tour Down Under, UCI president David Lappartient spoke at length about the squabble within the sport, striking an alternately conciliatory and hardline tone. “I think it’s important to engage with the teams. I want the best for the teams. I want the best environment. I want security for the riders. I want them to have more revenue. So, in fact, we want the same thing,” he said, before going on to acknowledge that the various stakeholders weren’t seeing eye to eye.

“In real life, you have the way that [things] are, and the way that you feel they are. And there can be a gap. I can respect the way that [the AIGCP] feel, but that’s not the case.”

“My goal is to bring everybody together. We can only bring cycling to the highest level with unity… we are probably the only sport where all the families are fighting. There is a huge potential for cycling, but instead of bringing cycling together to the next stage, we are fighting in between the cycling families… we are completely crazy.”

In conversation in Adelaide, Lappartient was notably animated when discussing the rift, likening the AIGCP’s allegations to “fake news”. In response to AIGCP’s open letter, Lappartient published a response outlining 31 changes that had been introduced in the teams’ favour during his tenure as president, and calling on the various bodies to come together in support of the UCI for the good of the sport.

”This situation is clearly untenable. Any trust in the representatives of the AIGCP is now broken,” Lappartient wrote. “I believe that we must work together to find a way out of this impasse, which is damaging to all of us. We must find solutions other than discussions with the AIGCP and its President, or risk plunging professional cycling into an unprecedented crisis.”

But whilst the lack of harmony between the AIGCP and the UCI is the more pressing concern given the AIGCP represents all the professional teams racing in the UCI’s calendar, it’s the dispute with Velon that may prove to have the greater financial and legal cost.

Of being brought before the European Commission, Lappartient told media in Adelaide that “I’m not sure that this is the right way to resolve the problems, because, first of all, we will spend a lot of money [ed. notably including the 1 million euro from the Emergency Fund, which is an obvious sorepoint for the teams].

“Velon, if I remember, was created to [produce] more revenue, and it seems that with this, it will create more expenses.”

In that Adelaide round-table, Lappartient also said that he expected that proceedings between the UCI and Velon could drag on for “between six years, seven years.”

All of which means that the UCI and the AIGCP don’t see eye to eye, the UCI and Velon really don’t see eye to eye and won’t for the foreseeable future, and the sport’s foundations are in a pretty bad spot, despite everything looking like normal at a surface level.

Well, that all sounds like a hot mess.

Just a tad.

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