Major changes to the UCI's lineup of teams and races are edging closer to reality as the UCI presses its agenda of a leaner system
Sweeping changes of how elite men’s professional cycling will look in the near future are no longer “pie in the sky” ideas, but are instead edging toward reality.
Is smaller better? Size doesn’t count for everything, especially as far as the UCI is concerned, and cycling’s governing body continues to press its makeover of how the elite men’s racing calendar will be structured.
As reported by CyclingNews last week, the UCI and representatives from the peloton’s key players had a major sit down November 13 in Paris. That was the latest of several meetings this season, and came ahead of an official UCI report that is expected to produce concrete suggestions for changes, most likely to be revealed at a UCI WorldTour seminar in Montreux, Switzerland, in early December.
Sources who attended the Paris meeting confirmed “everybody who was important was there,” with representatives from the UCI, the major teams, as well as race organizers, all hashing out several issues during an intense, all-day meeting. Sources also confirmed not all parties are in agreement, especially over the contentious issue of revenue sharing.
Reports of proposed changes have been leaked out over the past year or so, with the UCI posting some details on its website, but the basic gist is this: Smaller teams, fewer races, and a streamlined, European-heavy schedule.
The goal is to make a crowded racing calendar leaner and tighter, but not everyone is in agreement on how to do that. A similar meeting that coincided with the Vuelta a España saw resistance to some of the UCI’s main proposals.
UCI president Brian Cookson, speaking to VeloNews’ Matthew Beaudin earlier this month, acknowledged there is some disagreement among the major parties, but insisted there is a spirit of compromise to come up with a more sustainable, and ideally more profitable, fan-friendly calendar.
“We’re making progress and I know that the media loves to make a big deal of these things, calling them disasters or whatever when things don’t get approved or sorted out right away,” Cookson said. “But it’s not really like that. There are a lot of stakeholders and points of view, so the best solutions come from talking those things through, rather than banging the table.”
These discussions are part an effort dating back to 2012 under former UCI president Pat McQuaid. The so-called stakeholders review looked across the top end of the sport, with a focus on schedules, anti-doping, globalization, and teams. The project was already gaining steam when Cookson took office last fall, and since then, the UCI has continued to press the agenda for change as deadlines for outlined action draw nearer.
“We did a review of pro cycling, and tried to come up with a solution that works as well as it can, and for as many of the diverse interests as it possibly can,” Cookson continued. “I think we’re at the stage now where there are too many race days at the top level, there are too many too long events, too many overlaps.”
Cookson was scheduled to be in Madrid on Monday as part of an awards ceremony to award 2014 WorldTour prizes to Alejandro Valverde and Movistar. UCI officials said Cookson would publicly address the proposed changes at the UCI conference in December.
The idea is to phase in changes, such as a reduction in team sizes and the number of ProTeams, over the next two seasons, and have a new, reduced racing schedule in place perhaps as soon as 2017.
Here are a few of the key talking points:
The idea is to roll back the number of top-level teams from 19 in 2013 to 16 into a new “first division” category, which would be guaranteed starts in all the major races. Next would be an eight-team “second division,” which would have guaranteed starts in lesser races, plus a chance to race in some of the top events. Behind that would be a mix of Pro Continental and Continental teams in a new “third division.” There appears to be agreement on this tenet, though more “second-division” teams may be included.
Instead of the current cap of 30, top teams would not be allowed to have more than 22 riders per first-division team. There is also some wiggle room there, with teams insisting on more riders, but squads will be dramatically smaller. Second- and third-division teams could have even less. That would mean fewer elite pros, but could see less staffers, such as sport directors, soigneurs, and mechanics, to support them.
New points system
The current ranking system, which separates WorldTour and Continental Tour calendars, would be ditched in favor of one, singular ranking system across the entire calendar. There is also talk of relegation and promotion, much like European soccer leagues, where bottom-ranked teams in the first division could drop out, while top second-tier teams could move up. The top teams are universally opposed to this idea, while smaller teams and race organizers support it.
There is also some consensus that the current calendar, which runs from January to October, is too long and overlaps during key parts of the season. The WorldTour opens in January with the Santos Tour Down Under, then goes into hibernation until March. And the most obvious example of overlap are Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, which coincide in March. Races would also have a heavy “Sunday” focus to draw in TV viewers, and see no overlapping between the major races on the first- and second-tier calendars. A new, “third-division” calendar will be created from much of the leftovers, including major races in the current tours in Oceania, Africa, America, Europe, and Asia, which would race a similar schedule to what currently exists.
Reduced race days
The rough outline calls for 120 race days for the first division (compared to a current 153 WorldTour race days in 2014), and 50 race days for the second division. This would also mean some races would see a reduction in race days, with stage races, such as the Tour de Suisse or the Critérium du Dauphiné, possibly cut to five or six days. There’s even been some discussion of rolling back the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia to fewer than three weeks, though that seems unlikely after strong resistance from race organizers.
Another tenet calls for even more vigilance over team finances and bank guarantees, while races will also be required to step up in rider and course safety, provide better accommodations, and improve infrastructure.
Revenue sharing remains roadblock
There appears to be a general consensus among the major talking points, and more negotiations are likely to happen between now and the WorldTour conference in early December.
The idea is create a racing calendar that creates a “better narrative” and does not see overlapping races that some say confuses fans and creates confusion. Economic factors are also a driving issue, and many believe a leaner, more compact calendar will be an easier sell to fans, media, and, most importantly, TV broadcasters.
One major hurdle for consensus on the calendar makeover remains the idea of revenue sharing, and teams and race organizers are at loggerheads over the divisive issue.
Race organizers, such as the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), which owns the Tour de France, Vuelta a España, and other major stages races and one-day classics, do not see an upside of sharing its TV revenues with teams.
Many teams say the current system of relying on title sponsors to underwrite their operating budgets is unsustainable.
At the same time as the calendar revision, 11 major World-Tour teams have organized under the banner of the “Avignon project,” and are pressing for revenue sharing, backing such ideas a universal TV contract across all races that could mean more money for all the major players. There have been suggestions of boycotting races if a revenue sharing agreement cannot be finalized.
It’s unclear if revenue sharing is a make-or-break issue for the calendar revisions, but it’s likely the UCI will press for the sweeping changes as a possible first step toward a new financial model.
As one source said, “the devil is in the details,” and it sounds like there is still some work to do before everyone is happy.