Brian Cookson feels the UCI's WorldTour reforms...

UCI’s Cookson puzzled by ASO’s stance

UCI president says WorldTour reforms are evolution, not revolution, that he doesn't understand why ASO is being belligerent.

In the debate over cycling’s impending WorldTour reform, Tour de France owner ASO stands quite alone.

Though the broad discussion about cycling’s future is full of smaller quarrels, and stakeholders make different allies in each individual fight, there remains a distinct line between ASO and others: the UCI, teams, and even its fellow race organizers.

“Whilst one group of organizers — I won’t beat around the bush, it’s ASO — seem to be a little bit unhappy, and I’m quite puzzled by their position, the majority of the rest of the WorldTour organizers are pretty happy,” UCI president Brian Cookson said of the recently approved reform package.

“I’ve spoken with the guys from Flanders Classics, and Tour de Suisse, [Giro d’Italia organizer] RCS, just to name a few, and they’re very supportive of where we’re going,” he said.

A final compromise between the sides came out of this week’s discussions in Barcelona: The UCI and teams won an important victory in the evolution of WorldTour license to three year guarantees, but the sport of cycling will not see any of the major changes discussed since the end of McQuaid’s tenure.

VeloNews called President Cookson Wednesday morning. What exactly happened in Barcelona? Is this a reform at all? Does ASO hold too much power?

The following is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

VeloNews: Most of the proposals we’ve seen over the last three years were not passed. Is this reform or just a reconfirmation of what cycling already is?

Brian Cookson: I think what’s happened is that the proposals that were part of the 2013 reforms that I inherited, it became pretty clear quite early on that these were not proposals that had universal or even widespread support, either amongst the organizers or amongst the teams. When bits of those proposals got out into the public domain the fans weren’t particularly happy about it either.

So what we’ve done over the last two years is revisit all of it. Really try to see what the issues are; what can we do to move things forward. Clearly our view was that the 2013 proposals were trying to fit cycling into a kind of straightjacket that might work for other sports but might have been damaging to our sport.

We’ve come up with a range of proposals that are an evolution, not a revolution.

We’re not insisting there are no overlaps in the calendar; we are making sure that there aren’t more than two races at a time.

We’re not looking at forcing events to reduce the number of days. If you recall, the original proposal was to bring the calendar down to 120 days, so events like the Vuelta would lose a week. They weren’t very happy about that.

There are other events, like the Tour of Turkey, that would love to be part of the WorldTour and have a legitimate claim to be so.

This idea of the best riders in the best events all the time will never work for our sport. That’s a misunderstanding. The best riders for the classics are not the best riders for the grand tours. We’d love to see Tour de France riders in Paris-Roubaix, but the idea that you can force riders, in the modern era, to ride races that don’t suit them and don’t suit their preparation just doesn’t work.

I think we’ve come up with something that will move things forward very positively. So the teams will get a strong basis, they’ll have a three-year license provided they comply with the requirements. The races will also have three-year licenses as well.

The teams won’t be forced to reduce their numbers, so nobody will be thrown out of a job because of these proposals.

There will be a development team as part of each team as well, so that will manage the process of bringing new riders into the WorldTour and developing them with the right sort of guidance.

I think, when I look around the room at the proposals, it seemed to me that the majority of people believed these will be good proposals that will be workable. If we had not changed our proposals, there would have been no point in having these additional discussions.

VN: There were still points of contention leading into Barcelona. What were they?

BC: Well, no one until we did the presentations and discussions at the start of the seminar, nobody had a clear picture of all of the proposals, and how they balanced out, and how they would work. That was helpful from everyone’s point of view.

It’s no secret that one group of the organizers were less than happy about the direction of things. But actually, if you talk to other groups of organizers, the WorldTour organizers, you’ll find that they’re pretty happy.

So whilst one group of organizers — I won’t beat around the bush, it’s ASO — seem to be a little bit unhappy, and I’m quite puzzled by their position, actually, the majority of the rest of the WorldTour organizers are pretty happy. As are those organizers who think they might have an opportunity to get into the WorldTour.

So we put in place a process where any event that wants to be considered for the WorldTour in 2017 will be assessed during 2016. It will obviously have to be a 2.1 or 1.1, those kinds of level events can be considered and assessed and appraised. There is some limited room around the existing WorldTour events to put in some extra events, provided we don’t impose a no-overlap rule, which was causing problems for existing events.

If we don’t restrict the number of riders in a team, in the overall team, we leave the teams up to 30 riders, then they can run at least two teams at any one time.

We’re not talking about new events that those teams are not riding already; we’re talking about good quality events that are just outside the WorldTour at the moment, bringing them inside.

In that way, we can start to take the WorldTour more generally around the world.

VN: So is the ASO unduly influencing this debate?

BC: I’m not going to cast aspersions on the ASO. What I will say is that I don’t believe that AIOCC had a balanced picture of the reforms when it took that vote. I know that many organizers are quite pleased with the proposals. All I can say, Caley, is speak to them. See what they have to say. I think you’ll find there is quite a lot of support among organizers.

One understands why ASO would be a little bit protective of their assets. They’ve done a great job with what they have and they don’t want to weaken their position. But my view is that the role of the UCI is to work in the interest of all stakeholders, not just one. Our job is to develop and enhance the sport around the world, and I think these proposals will do that.

I don’t want to fall out with ASO or anyone else, I want them to keep talking to us and I’m sure that these proposals will enhance everybody’s position if we give them a chance to breathe and develop.

VN: Was the three-year license deal, which the ASO has opposed, a victory for the UCI and teams?

I don’t like to talk in terms of victory and defeat. What we’re trying to do is find balanced solutions that are in everyone’s best interest, that strengthen the economic position of our sport. It’s a professional sport, so it needs to be based on a strong economy.

The teams now have the possibility of a three-year license; they’ll still have to go under annual scrutiny. We’ll have sporting appraisal at the end of three years, and with those sporting criteria we’ll look at moving teams in or out.

But that’s just one of the elements. The teams have only as much stability as the organizers have. They have a commitment for three years; the organizers will have the same. They can predict and plan ahead, and now the teams can do the same. I think that’s good for the sport.

If we were in a position where we had 18 WorldTour teams that were sound and another 10 Pro Continental teams that were so well-funded that they were desperate to get into the WorldTour, then we’d look into the assessments, the promotion and relegation possibilities and so on, but we’re not there yet. I want us to get there over the fullness of time. To do that we need to allow things to develop incrementally and in a sustainable way.

VN: Anything you want to add?

BC: I think it’s fair to say that I’m a little bit puzzled by ASO’s position. No objections were raised at the end of our discussion sessions. We gave everybody a lot of opportunity to come back. If we don’t have dialogue then we’re not going to move forward.

As I said, if you talk to other organizers, if you talk to teams, I think there’s pretty strong consensus around these proposals. Maybe they’re not dramatic or radical, but I believe they’ll work for our sport. Our sport isn’t tennis or football or golf, it’s not Formula 1, it’s got to be something that works for our sport, that respects that heritage that we all fell in love with. We need to develop, and spread it around the world if we can, without damaging any of the wonderful features of our sport.