By Neal Rogers

Armstrong meets the press at the Gila on Wednesday.

Armstrong meets the press at the Gila on Wednesday.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

By the time you are reading this, Lance Armstrong and his Astana teammates — sorry, Mellow Johnny’s teammates — Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner have completed the opening stage of the SRAM Tour of the Gila, in New Mexico.

To no one’s surprise, Leipheimer won the opening stage, which ended with the 5km Mogollon climb. Things should get interesting watching those three defend the lead against several top-notch domestic teams packing eight-man rosters.

And while the participation of three of America’s top riders, a week before they head to the Giro d’Italia, should have been nothing but a boost for American cycling, the unfortunate reality is that Armstrong’s attendance may ultimately prove to have the opposite effect.

At the very least, Team BMC, America’s only Pro Continental team, suffered collateral damage due to Armstrong’s global popularity. The team was forced to send five riders home from Gila, and faces an uncertain 2009 North American schedule, due to the enforcement of a rarely used UCI rule prohibiting ProTour and Pro Continental teams from participating in non-UCI sanctioned events.

BMC, America’s only Pro Continental team, suffered collateral damage due to Armstrong’s global popularity.

While the Astana riders were making last-minute arrangements to get to Silver City on Tuesday morning, five BMC riders — Jackson Stewart, Tony Cruz, Jonathan Garcia, Martin Kohler, and Tomas Frey — were packing their things and heading home, with only Scott Nydam, Chad Beyer and Florian Stalder remaining. And the unintended and unfortunate reality is that Armstrong’s participation caused this to happen.

Many of you will remember that Armstrong’s decision to race the 2004 Tour de Georgia not only brought the race back from imminent collapse, but spawned a surge in state-supported UCI stage races that paved the way for the Amgen Tour of California and the Tour of Missouri.

Fast forward five years — the Tour of the Gila, a mainstay on USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar, found itself struggling to find sponsorship before SRAM stepped in as title sponsor in March.

Given the race sponsorship, SRAM marketing execs were foamy about the possibility of having Armstrong and Leipheimer race Gila, which made perfect sense given SRAM’s equipment sponsorship of both Astana and Armstrong’s Trek-Livestrong under-23 team, also racing at Gila.

So why isn’t Armstrong’s decision to race domestically being received as salvation this time around? Because, although American fans relish seeing their favorite Tour stars perform domestically, Armstrong’s appearance, through no fault of his own, negatively impacted one the country’s top developing pro teams.

Armstrong’s decision to race Gila came up against scrutiny due to UCI rule 2.1.009, which states, “Only the UCI continental teams of the country, regional and club teams, national teams and mixed teams may participate in national events. Mixed teams may not include riders from a UCI ProTeam.”

In UCI terminology, “national events” means events sanctioned by a national federation, such as USA Cycling, rather than the international governing body.

Another important point in the language of rule 2.1.009: “UCI ProTeam” means either ProTour or Pro Continental, with “pro” being the operative word — Continental teams, which are overseen by national federations, have no minimum salary requirement and are therefore not considered “professional.” The language of the rule is particularly confusing, as some have read “continental” to mean both Continental and Professional Continental. Not the case; again, professional is the operative word, not continental.

To my knowledge, rule 2.1.009 has never been enforced here in the United States. Horner and Leipheimer both raced at the Cascade Classic last year, and Leipheimer raced at the Sea Otter Classic just 10 days ago, telling me Monday, “I didn’t know it was a rule. When I did races like Sea Otter and Cascade, I didn’t even think about it, and no one ever mentioned a thing about the rule.”

However it’s no secret that the UCI is extremely sensitive about any perception of giving Armstrong preferential treatment. (Remember the excessive drubbing UCI president Pat McQuaid took after the federation allowed Armstrong to start the Tour Down Under in January even though the Texan’s re-enrollment in the out-of-competition testing pool fell 10 days shy of the required six months?)

With Armstrong showing interest in Gila, the UCI felt it had no choice but to enforce the rule, meaning that Astana could not field a team at Gila.

“The high-profile interest in the Astana team perhaps riding at Gila caught the attention of UCI, and the UCI informed us of the rule and asked us to make sure the rules were followed,” said USA Cycling chief operating officer Sean Petty. “That got the process going last week.”

However a closer look at the rule also meant that Team BMC could not field a team.

Long history

In actuality, BMC has been racing in violation rule 2.1.009 since the beginning of last year, as were Navigators Insurance, Health Net-Maxxis and Slipstream-Chipotle, all American Pro Continental teams that raced at non-UCI sanctioned events since this rule was implemented with the inception of the ProTour in 2005.

In theory, BMC’s Jeff Louder, the winner of this year’s Redlands Classic, and Nydam, the winner of the Tour of the Battenkill, should not have been at those events at all, or at the very least, not riding with their team.

“The idea is to ensure you have enough good riders at the big events and you don’t crowd out the smaller teams at the smaller events. In Europe that is an important function.” — BMC’s Gavin Chilcott

“Yes, you would have to say that technically those wins were against the rule, based on where we find ourselves now,” Petty said Tuesday. “But if you go back to Navigators, Health Net, and last year Slipstream, they all did a lot of races in the U.S. as Pro Continental teams. And frankly we (USA Cycling) didn’t think of it as an issue, nor did we get any questions or concerns from anyone.”

Rule 2.1.009 makes a certain amount of sense on the ProTour side — it not only prevents ProTour riders and teams from sandbagging smaller events, but it also enables the UCI to protect its ProTour franchise as the premier league in the sport. However it makes less sense for Pro Continental teams, particularly for those not based in Europe, of which there is exactly one — BMC.

Under UCI rules, Pro Continental teams are not allowed to enter category 1.2 or 2. 2 races on the European Tour calendar, meaning they must vie for invitations to bigger races — 1.1 and 2.1 events such as Etoile de Bessèges and La Vuelta a Castilla y León (1.1 races are “larger,” higher-profile races than 1.2). Pro Continental teams may also compete at 1.HC and 2.HC events such as La Flèche Wallonne and Critérium International, but these events are even more difficult to earn invitations to.

BMC has done well for itself this year as a wildcard Pro Continental team, earning invites to Paris-Roubaix and Circuit de la Sarthe, where Louder finished 10th overall. At this week’s Tour of Romandie, the team’s first ProTour stage race of the season, BMC has three riders in the top 30 after the prologue and one stage.

However much like the UCI’s under-28 rule for continental teams (intended to promote development), rule 2.1.009 is a “one size fits all” rule applied to nations with very different race and team structures. And as with many UCI rules, what makes sense in Europe, where these rules are written, shouldn’t necessarily be applied in the U.S.

In Europe, where there are countless UCI-sanctioned events and 20 Pro Continental teams, the UCI’s desire for stratification makes perfect sense — having Tour de France-caliber teams like Agritubel and Barloworld also competing at national races on a par with Redlands or Gila isn’t good for the continental teams, which tend to serve a similar function as the bigger developmental-oriented club teams here in the U.S.

“The UCI’s goal is to group riders to where the range of the sports level is not too broad,” BMC team manager Gavin Chilcott said. “The idea is to ensure you have enough good riders at the big events and you don’t crowd out the smaller teams at the smaller events. In Europe that is an important function. You can’t have Pro Continental teams come in and crowd out Continental teams, or then they’d have no place to race. “

It’s a different game in North America, however. With the Tour de Georgia canceled, followed by the Priority Health Tour de Leelanau, the U.S. Open of Cycling and the first two races of Philly Week, the number of UCI events in the U.S. has been reduced dramatically, to just nine. Even if all of those races had gone as scheduled, USA Cycling’s Professional Tour of UCI-sanctioned events would not have been enough for a 16-rider Professional Continental team to prepare for European racing.

“Because the guys are based in the U.S., they can’t just train. They need to race,” Petty said.

Team BMC also needs national-level racing to prove to those UCI races that it is worthy of an invitation.

Already in Europe to meet with the UCI road commission, Petty had the opportunity to confer with McQuaid on Monday and ultimately strike up a compromise over the international governing body’s rules regarding UCI pro riders’ participation in national events.

Prodded to explain how USA Cycling could have overlooked this rule for so long, Petty said, “When Pat and I were discussing, I said quite candidly, Pat, we didn’t look at it as an issue. We were not ignoring the rule. We kind of interpreted it as meaning ProTour.”

McQuaid consulted with the UCI’s legal counsel, and the result was the discovery of a loophole: UCI rule 2.8.003 permits a maximum of three riders from a UCI Pro team to enter national races as individuals, but bars them from competing in their pro-team kit (hence Armstrong, Horner and Leipheimer wearing the Mellow Johnny’s kits.)

The rule allows riders of a UCI ProTeam to take part in an “individual race” a maximum of three times a year, but, among other stipulations concerning prize money and stage distances, prohibits those riders’ team vehicles from being admitted to the race.

The future

What this all means for BMC’s future is unclear. The team had planned on participating in other NRC stage races such as the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic, the Cascade Classic, the Tour of New York and the Tour of Utah, won by Salt Lake City native Jeff Louder last year.

“We’re still working on that,” Chilcott said. “There may still be room for movement in how the eligibility rules are interpreted. USA Cycling has some degree of autonomy, and the goal is to migrate these national federations into something that is consistent with the international system. … I don’t think there is enormous amount of disagreement among the parties.”

As it stands, not only does the enforcement of this rule impact BMC, but it also deters any American Continental team considering becoming Pro Continental.

Questioned if he felt badly about the effect the implementation of the rule had on the BMC team, Armstrong told VeloNews, “if you hear the story of (BMC) being here for a week with eight guys who flew over from Europe, and five couldn’t start, yeah, you have to feel bad for them. We need to readdress those rules. I think it got confused when the ProTour was created, and with that came its own set of rules. The relationship between USA Cycling and the UCI and the local organizers, all that has to be addressed. I suspect (the rule) will change.”

Leipheimer also weighed in, telling VeloNews, “Obviously that rule isn’t doing U.S. cycling much good. Because a team like BMC gets penalized for being a Pro Continental team. We just don’t have that many races here in the U.S. to have that rule, because there are not enough tiers of different races. Of course we’re not happy they had to send five guys home. We would have had five guys here instead of three if they hadn’t enforced the rule. But would it have been better for the Tour of the Gila if we hadn’t raced? We’re not on the opposite side, we’re all on the same page. Hopefully with the attention this rule has gotten, this whole drama will deliver a positive outcome; hopefully they can change that rule for the U.S.”

As with many UCI rules, what makes sense in Europe, where these rules are written, shouldn’t necessarily be applied in the U.S.

It’s a guarantee that USA Cycling will look for a long-term solution, particularly given that Jim Ochowicz, a former USA Cycling president and the godfather to Armstrong’s son, serves as liaison between the BMC brand and the team.

“(BMC team director) John Lelangue is on the UCI road commission, and we discussed the dilemma they are in,” Petty said. “We will continue to work in earnest here to find a solution, even for this year. We can’t wait, we have to work with UCI and figure something out and develop a solution quickly.”

One solution in the works, Chilcott said, is the UCI’s plan to implement a world ranking system, possibly beginning in 2010.

“You’re seeing the UCI adopting a new world calendar and new points schemes that affect what opportunities teams have,” Chilcott said. “And all that is predicated upon the opportunities to participate in these calendars, or participate in events that allow the UCI to compare a team from the U.S. to a team from Europe, and have it be apples to apples based upon the points.”

There’s no question Armstrong’s appearance at Gila is good for the event, and will once again draw attention to cycling on a national level. It also gives him an opportunity to ride alongside his Trek-Livestrong riders, which is no doubt a positive step in the formation of the future generation of American cycling.

There’s also no question that when a rider like Peter Stetina finishes second to Leipheimer on the Mogollon climb, the cycling world takes notice more than it would have if Stetina had won the stage and the Astana boys hadn’t been racing.

It is, of course, ironic that Armstrong’s decision to race Gila, which should have been viewed solely as a boost for American cycling, has had a negative impact on one of America’s most important development teams.

But the real irony is that the UCI, which speaks so often and so eloquently about the push towards globalizing the sport, felt compelled to enforce a rule that had the opposite effect here in the U.S., nearly preventing the biggest rider in the world from competing while simultaneously throwing our country’s only Pro Continental team into mid-season crisis.