News
L'AQUILA, ITALY - MAY 17: Poggiofiorito City /...

Italian cycling pushes back against UCI’s growing domination

Organizers, teams say they are ‘starving’ under proposed 2020 changes to calendar

Italy’s cycling community isn’t blaming the UCI for all of its current woes — it’s just saying the cycling governing body isn’t helping.

That’s the gist of a new challenge the Lega del Ciclismo Professionistico is bringing against the UCI, filed this month. The so-called Italian Cycling League — a consortium of races, teams, and riders — filed a formal complaint to the European Commission on October 7, citing the UCI’s latest reform efforts as “restrictive practices” that, the group says, would “exclude a large part of Italian cycling.”

“There is no space for Italian cycling in this new system,” said Stefano Piccolo, the group’s general secretary. “The history runs very deep. The base of our sport is in danger under this proposed system. Our members are starving.”

Since the arrival of new president David Lappartient in 2017, the UCI has been working behind the scenes over the past 18 months to reshape the international racing calendar. Many details remain under wraps, but the UCI is poised to unveil its restructured calendar and team classifications for 2020.

At first glance, many of these reforms appear to be minor tweaks on the current system of races and teams. One major change, however, is that the WorldTour is expected to be expanded from 18 to 20 teams, which will race across the long-established calendar of the most important one-day race, one-week stage races and grand tours.

UCI President David Lappartient has been masterminding a series of reforms. Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

Promoters of non-WorldTour events and backers of second-tier teams, however, say they are being squeezed out of the sport in what the Italian league called a “closed system.” Because there are so many WorldTour teams required to race in all the major events, there’s not much room below the top league.

“The teams and races are starving,” Piccolo said in a telephone interview. “It’s difficult for the others outside of the WorldTour to survive. If the WorldTour teams have so many race days on the WorldTour calendar, they cannot race in other events. And smaller teams cannot get into the WorldTour events. You cannot just have 20 teams, and that’s it. That’s the Formula 1 model. It’s not a model that is good for cycling.”

With 20 WorldTour teams, grand tour organizers will only be able to hand out two wild-card invitations. That puts the pinch on teams and riders in the second line.

According to many power brokers within the Italian cycling community, they see the UCI’s latest moves as a threat to its treasured cycling culture and tradition.

Rather than trying to bolster and modernize the sport, as the UCI insists its reforms will do, the Italians worry the new-look world calendar is cutting off Italian cycling at its roots.

“If you make a rule that there are 20 WorldTour teams, then that means the organizers do not have the possibility to invite many second-tier teams,” Piccolo said. “Cycling is not just about the WorldTour — it is about everything. These smaller teams are important for the development of cyclists. How many great racers started out on a small team and then became big stars?”

2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal (pictured here in 2017) spent his first two years in Europe racing for the Italian Androni franchise. Photo: Tim De Waele

It’s the latest chapter of cycling’s long-running turf wars, when organizers, teams and the UCI are often at odds.

Backing the challenge to the European Commission are all the major players in Italian cycling. The Italian League includes 20 race organizers, including RCS Sport, as well as the Italian teams and most riders and managers. Also backing the move is Italian cycling federation president Renato di Rocco, a Lappartient ally and high-ranking UCI official. The group dated back decades before going dormant, only to be revived again in 2012.

Everyone in Italian cycling felt it was time to take a stand.

“We are one of the top nations that has built up cycling over the past century, but now we are struggling with economic problems to participate in this UCI project,” Piccolo continued. “We think it is not the correct way for promoting the sport. We see that the UCI is not developing the sport. It is destroying the minor events and only wants to support the big events.”

The Italian league’s formal complaint comes against a rather bleak backdrop of a struggling Italian peloton face headwinds on many fronts.

Italy remains one of the hotbeds of professional cycling, and is home to two of the five monuments, the Giro d’Italia, and has produced legends from Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali to Mario Cipollini and Marco Pantani.

But in many ways, Italian cycling today is a husk of what it was two decades ago.

A combination of economic malaise coupled with what team owners and sponsors say is an over-burdened tax structure has seen the Italian presence shrink as the sport has boomed internationally. There are no longer any Italian-registered WorldTour teams and only four squads remain in the second-tier Professional Continental league (soon to be called ProTeams in the UCI’s newly branded structure for 2020).

Contrast that to 15 years ago when there were four major Italian teams in cycling’s top league plus nearly a dozen other secondary teams racing across Europe.

Bardiani-CSF are one of the four Italian teams remaining at Pro Continental level. Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

While it’s true that Italian riders are still a dominant presence in the pack in terms of numbers, most race on non-Italian teams in what’s becoming an ever more international peloton.

It’s against these tides that the Italian league felt it was time to raise its voice.

For the Italians, cycling should not always be about money. It’s about the love of the game.

“You can make a race in China, and maybe you can do it three or four years before the money ends,” Piccolo said. “But in Italy, as in Belgium and France and others, we have a different model. We have tradition. We have to support these historic races. You cannot destroy races.”

The UCI insists that it has been working in good faith over the past several months with all the interested stake-holders to construct what it says is a more vigorous pathway to carry the sport into the new century.

The UCI would not comment on the latest EC complaint, but released this statement: “In line with its mission, the UCI will continue to work with all its stakeholders, and in the best interest of the sport, for the new organization of men’s professional road cycling.”

A UCI official said it has not been officially contacted by the Italian league or by the EC. It also said it would press for a dismissal of the complaint.

The Italian league’s challenge to the European Commission is the second such action against the UCI. Earlier this month, Velon also filed an anti-trust complaint, claiming that the UCI is trying to hinder the development of its parallel racing series, the Hammer Series.

It’s unclear what will happen with this pair of unorthodox challenges to the UCI’s power before the European Commission. The EC first reviews any complaints to see if they have merit, which could be followed by a month’s-long investigation process. It’s unchartered territory, at least within cycling, so it could be months or even years before anything happens.

Piccolo said the Italians took their concerns directly to the UCI but felt their complaints were falling on deaf ears. When they saw no substantial changes emerge from the UCI congress last month in Yorkshire, the group pressed ahead with its claim to the EC.

“It may be difficult for the European Commission to understand the dominant position the UCI has in our sport. We think a first step like this might produce a change,” Piccolo said. “It’s not easy for us to take this strong position against UCI, but our members are determined to do something.”

And like the Velon complaint, the Italian League is raising concerns that, according to a press release, the UCI’s “new regulations appear to be aimed at promoting the commercial interests of the UCI to the detriment of teams and race organizers.”

Velon, organizers of the Hammer Series, filed an anti-trust complaint against the UCI earlier this month. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Detractors insist the UCI is stepping beyond its regulatory role and intruding on the commercial interests of teams and organizers, especially citing efforts to bundle TV rights in a newly branded “Classics Series” that the UCI is hoping to unveil in 2020. The format would include races from across the calendar’s major one-day races to bring back a World Cup-type season-long competition. Organizers were initially on board, but talks have been bogged down over how to split up the pie. One source said organizers are pushing back against the UCI’s efforts to try to take control of the commercial aspects of the project.

“The UCI also wants to have a centralized control of TV rights, like it’s trying to do with the ‘Classics Series,’” Piccolo said. “Either you are an institution or you are a business. If you are a business party, you cannot be the one regulating the others. The UCI has made these kinds of promises before, but they only charge the money.”

The two complaints also diverge. While Velon claims the UCI is trying to hinder its commercial ventures, the Italian cycling challenge is more philosophical.

“This is an affirmation of principles,” Piccolo said. “The UCI cannot build a closed system. It’s not what our sport is about. It’s just business with them.

“We do not want a closed system,” he continued. “We are not like the NFL or the NBA. Organizers do not run these races to make money. They do it for the passion of cycling. It’s for the love of the sport. If you are an organizer, and you cannot get even one or two of the big teams to come, your race could die. If you are a small team, and you have no chance to race a big race, then the team can close.”

The Italians have had enough of watching their beloved “ciclismo” die on the vine. Teams and organizers are hoping this EC challenge will give them the breathing space they say they need in order to bloom again.