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Changing the Business Model: Rethinking pro cycling’s governance

The UCI tries to do too much, and it needs to focus on its strengths, reduce conflicts of interest, according to The Outer Line

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Editor’s note: VeloNews contributor Steve Maxwell and his partner Joe Harris have published a multi-part series of articles about how to improve the sport of cycling’s business foundation. This is an excerpt from the sixth and final article.

Professional road cycling has evolved slowly over the past hundred years. The current structure of major racing events and top team competition fell into place rather haphazardly over many decades, and as a result of changing economic and nationalistic factors in Western Europe. Accordingly, evolution of the sport’s governance has also been somewhat bumpy and arbitrary.

Reforms and decisions that took place in the 1980s and 1990s largely shaped today’s playing field. The calendar has expanded. The traditional cycling nations of Western Europe have seen their dominance diminished with the globalization of the peloton. Sponsors have rewritten the rules by which the sport is financed.

A frequent criticism of pro cycling is that there is insufficient strategic thinking by the leadership of the sport, and a lack of a vision of what the sport should look like in five, 10, or 20 years’ time.

In the previous articles in our “Changing the Business Model” series, we have evaluated several ways in which the sport can reinvent its financial underpinnings, racing structure, ethical, and anti-doping standards to develop new paths to sustainable profitability and greater growth. But it will be difficult to accomplish these forward steps without also changing and modernizing the governance model of the sport — the way in which pro cycling sets its rules, enforces policy, and brings all of the participants together to achieve its overall sporting and business objectives.

First, a thorough review and modernization of the UCI should be completed with recommendations for streamlining and modernizing its business operations, charter, and constitutional bylaws. The result of this exercise should be greater transparency, financial accountability, and global trust in the values and practices of a new UCI, or a “UCI-like” body.

Despite some of the positive reforms proposed or already executed by president Brian Cookson’s leadership team, there are still concerns that the UCI may no longer be the appropriate body to govern professional road racing. The range of its responsibilities is too broad, its management remains too opaque, and its organizational function — as representative, licensor, and regulator of the riders — is fraught with multiple conflicts of interest.

Second, the UCI must build stronger inter-agency agreements to resolve the historical disputes and territorial posturing between all of the agencies intertwined in the sport. Professional cycling has never really effectively policed itself. And much like any business — which should be focused on its core competency to capitalize on market opportunities — cycling should divest itself of what it is not so good at to focus on improving and optimizing what it is good at: bike racing. Too much time and effort has been spent by the UCI trying to manage aspects of the sport which other parties could handle more effectively — namely, drug testing and race promotion.

The UCI should focus on developing the riders and creating a logical competitive structure and racing calendar that encourages viewership. It should divest itself of “police work,” giving that over to the experts at the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), or to an independent certification program. Just as importantly, it must also leave the national federations’ internal issues up to those local agencies to decide, so long as the federations abide by the spirit of the UCI’s interagency agreements.

Third, the sport needs to strengthen and align objectives between the team and race organizations. As explored earlier, the UCI must work with team and race executives to balance the racing demands and adopt mutually beneficial strategies that ensure participation, build racing viewership, and improve the competitive suspense of the annual cycling calendar.

The AIOCC — the organization representing the race organizers — already exercises a great deal of control over the sport, although it is itself dominated by the largest race representative — the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO). Pro cycling could learn a lesson from the way that NASCAR and Formula One motor sports have consolidated television and merchandising rights into empires that build importance and suspense into every race in their calendars.

The Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels (AIGCP) and the newly formed Velon organization are the groups representing the interests of the teams and team owners. While Velon’s strategy has yet to be communicated, the AIGCP has stated that cycling can only grow “if all stakeholders — including teams — have a fair and equal say in the decision-making process.” Both groups will need to work closely together to strengthen the positions of their constituent teams — and by extension, their sponsors — at the table when negotiating with the race organizers and the UCI.

Fourth, pro cycling needs to leave a place at the table for the athletes. They should build a stronger riders association or union. The existing riders group, the Cycliste Professionnels Associés (CPA), has historically been a small and relatively powerless entity — so obscure that many pro racers have never even heard of it. The legacy model of the sport treats riders as mere commodities, which by extension encourages cheating to achieve results; without those results, the rider has no value to barter.

The disparate and diverse nature of the rider population has historically been an obstacle to organization or the establishment of a single base of power. Furthermore, generally low rider salaries have meant that there was no significant funding source for an association.

A stronger union could eventually provide for the kind of collective bargaining needed to improve the safety and financial well-being of the athletes, and perhaps most overlooked — the resources, tools, and training to help riders transition to a life outside of cycling after retirement.

While the creation of a stronger riders union may initially appear to be antithetical to the interests of both the teams and the organizers, it is essential that the riders be better represented in terms of the safety, health, and economic aspects of the sport. The riders must also begin to embrace the concept they represent a valuable commodity — one which they are in effect “selling” to the team owners. The example from almost all other professional sports shows that cycling will never really be able to blossom and grow until the players understand the value of their own human capital and own their spot at the negotiating table.

Finally, It may be time to consider spinning off a separate cycling league for top-level professional racing, completely unencumbered by the current governance model. This league could be a related, but non-subsidiary group to the UCI, focused exclusively on professional road racing. This would allow cycling to take a final step toward parity with other professional leagues and team sports.

There is also one other potential path which could bypass the UCI altogether. Over the past 15 years, ASO has gradually consolidated many of the major racing events, and has solidified its position and power as the chief policy driver in the sport. As many have pointed out, as the ASO goes, so goes the overall sport. If it were to acquire the RCS Sport events, it would control the majority of key events and broadcast rights in the sport.

A new racing league could be structured around the grand tours, unencumbered by Olympic obligations, with affiliated one-day and classics races and a competitive structure to drive viewership and investment.

Far-fetched perhaps, but should ASO decide to go this direction, a true professional league could emerge and grow. And there is a very relevant precedent – Bernie Ecclestone’s wresting control of Formula 1 auto racing away from individual race organizers many years ago to transform it into the global brand that it is today.

This sport cannot be governed forever as one branch of a tree that is unable to support its entire weight. In the future, and as the sport grows, pro cycling will truly deserve its own dedicated governing body, committed to implementing a new business model for long-term financial stability.