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Analysis: Examining the UCI WorldTour model a decade after its launch

It's been a decade since the WorldTour started — what's changed? Not a lot, at least at first glance

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The 2019 WorldTour wrapped up Tuesday at the Tour of Guangxi, with cycling’s marquee racing series at a crossroads.

It’s been a decade since the introduction of the men’s WorldTour — and even more dating back to 2005 when former UCI president Hein Verbruggen introduced the ProTour concept — and some wonder what has changed.

At first glance, not a lot.

The grand tours and the one-day monuments on the European calendar continue to dominate the international calendar. The Tour de France, and its powerful ownership group ASO remains the gravitational center of the sport. The Tour is the sun of the cycling universe, around which all the other races and teams orbit.

Organization of international professional cycling remains fraught with conflict between organizers, teams and the UCI, often with the fans and the riders caught in the middle. That hasn’t changed either.

The three-way tug-of-war for control of the sport dates back to well before the WorldTour, and continues to play out at many levels. Just this month, Velon and a consortium of Italian races and teams each took up separate anti-competition claims against the UCI to the European Commission. Riders have complained openly about safety concerns at races, something the UCI insists it is addressing. That hasn’t changed much over the years, either.

Behind the scenes, however, the WorldTour has brought some improvements in details that most people don’t see. Contracts, licensing and protocols are much more professional than they were two decades ago. Bank guarantees and firmer contracts mean riders and staffers usually — but not always — get paid, something that was far from the case coming out of the 1990s. Agents, sport directors and trainers all require UCI licenses. Cycling will always be a dangerous sport, yet extreme weather protocols, a smaller peloton, and technical requirements for bicycles at least create a baseline.

High temperatures at the 2019 Tour Down Under saw a trimming of the first two stages under the extreme weather protocol. Photo: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

Anti-doping controls have also improved dramatically since the introduction of the WorldTour. The biological passport, whereabouts program, and enhanced testing protocols were all introduced step by step alongside the WorldTour. Anti-doping controls are no longer directly under control by the UCI, reducing any hint of nefarious tricks or conflicts of interest. All these are encouraging steps for the credibility of the sport.

The season-long series will see some important tweaks going into 2020. The UCI is juggling points, licenses and calendar structures that, at least for the fans, should not mean that significant a change. At first glance, the racing calendar for 2020 will largely stay the same.

Many are waiting to see the final allocation of team licenses, with the men’s series expected to have 20 teams for 2020, something that not everyone is happy about. The racing calendar — already out this month — remains largely unchanged for 2020, with the Tour of Turkey getting bumped out of the WorldTour and the addition of a new race in Maryland as the most significant changes.

New for 2020 will be the “UCI ProSeries,” which is a rebranding of the 1.HC and 2.HC, or “hors categorie,” races just below WorldTour status. Since no one really understood what HC stood for, many are hoping the new look will help give the series a little more marketability. The existing regional tours by continents, i.e. the America Tour, Africa Tour, etc., stay largely intact for next year.

The women’s WorldTour continues to develop, with expanding events and deeper teams for its fifth season. New standards will be applied for 2020, which will mean more costs for teams, but improved consistency across the women’s calendar.

The OVO Women’s Tour expanded to six stages in 2019, and was won by Lizzie Diegnan Photo: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Like many things in cycling, not everything is the UCI’s fault when things go wrong, nor does the cycling governing body deserve all the credit for when things improve.

It’s worth remembering that the UCI imposed the WorldTour on everyone else, and it’s a concept that has only been cautiously embraced by cycling’s key players. As a governing body, the UCI plays multiple roles in a sport that’s grown organically and haphazardly over the past century. The WorldTour concept was also meant to impose some order and structure to the expansive racing calendar.

Critics say the UCI is an impediment to the development of the sport, while its defenders say the UCI helps protect the base of the sport against the purely commercial interests of teams and races. What’s undeniable is the UCI’s ever-growing influence — and some argue over-reach — in the day-to-day business of governing the sport is greater today than it was 20 years ago.

Another key goal of the WorldTour concept was to broaden the international reach of the sport. On that score, it’s hard to say that the WorldTour has done much to nurture or even tap into what has been an international cycling boom over the past two decades. Interest has exploded in racing in such countries as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Colombia, yet those markets are underserved on the WorldTour calendar with smaller one-day races, or, like Colombia, not at all.

Of course, races cost money to produce, and WorldTour events even more so with license fees and production requirements. That’s why many of the international events on the WorldTour calendar beyond the traditional cycling hotbeds are taking root in cash-rich countries. The Middle East and China are the only new markets the WorldTour has expanded into in more than a decade of trying.

Some argue these events are contrived at best, and complicit at worst. Critics point out that evil despots often use international sporting events to “sports-wash” their regime’s worst excesses. Yet it’s almost impossible for race organizers to turn away plum offers to produce events, especially when the profits can help sustain other races back home in Europe that break even or even lose money.

UAE Tour
The UAE Tour formed out of out of the combination of its predecessors the Dubai Tour and the Abu Dhabi Tour. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

These new markets represent untapped opportunities for teams and races alike, and that’s why they are part of the WorldTour. United Arab Emirates already sponsors a WorldTour race and a team, and Bahrain is putting its powerful economic muscle behind its team, and bringing its prestige property McLaren into cycling next year.

In a sport begging poverty as much as cycling does, it cannot afford not to engage these partners.

Of course, the Moby Dick of cycling remains China. The world’s most-populous nation and the world’s second-largest economy is cycling’s promised land. Several teams are permanently trolling China in hopes of landing a new sponsor. Bike manufacturers dream of having just a sliver of China’s new elite class embrace cycling as the “new golf.”

The WorldTour’s current toehold in China is significant on several levels. First off, the Tour of Guangxi is a continuation of the opening that came in the wake of the 2008 Olympic Games and the legacy event at the Tour of Beijing. Unlike the Beijing race, beset with worries over smog, this new event is run by Chinese organizers in a beautiful region ideal for TV backdrops.

Most importantly is the link to Wang Jianlin. As one of China’s richest men and owner of the Wanda Group, which has taken over the World Triathlon Corporation and has ownership in the Tour de Suisse, Wang Jianlin is an important ally for cycling in China. To ignore China is to ignore the future.

The Tour of Guangxi marks a toehold in China for the WorldTour. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

So a decade on, what’s the verdict? Is the WorldTour perfect? Far from it. Is it contrived? Sure, but so was the Tour de France when it started as a stunt to sell newspapers more than a century ago. As a stand-alone series, everyone agrees it means next to nothing. Yet as a platform to professionalize and expand the sport, it’s done more over the past decade that most people will give it credit for.

What does the next decade hold? Ideally, the WorldTour could live it up to its name, and represent a truly global series, with events in such hotbeds as Colombia or Africa.

The big challenge for the WorldTour, and professional cycling in general, is to get all the stakeholders on the same page.

The WorldTour is imperfect, but it is an attempt to bundle together cycling’s disparate interests under one tent. Some will argue that cycling would be better off to embrace a Formula-1 style racing series, with permanent team franchises, shared TV rights and an integrated calendar, and reject the UCI altogether. Opponents say that would be the death knell to everyone else left outside. ASO still holds all the cards anyway. Until that changes, the WorldTour — for better or worse — is what cycling’s stuck with.

The funny thing is, once there is an open road, and 150 guys or gals on bikes, the racing instincts kick in. It doesn’t really matter where it is or what you call it. That will never change.