By Andrew Hood
There are two intense competitions going on this week as the ProTour debuts at Paris-Nice.
First, there’s the “Race to the Sun” which inaugurated the 27-race ProTour series with much fanfare Sunday in Paris. Then there’s the real dogfight going on behind closed doors, with the UCI and the teams squaring off against the grand tours, leaving the future of the ProTour hanging in the balance.
The center of the ProTour conflict is a power struggle over which entities will wield control of cycling into the next decade.
Contrary to the PR spin this weekend, it seems everyone had a beef at the dawn of cycling’s new age.
Race organizers are still seething at the UCI’s efforts to force the ProTour idea on them in the first place.
Teams don’t like expensive new salary and budget requirements while riders complain that with their new secured contracts come with the unexpected reality that many will be paying more of their salaries to the tax man.
The cyclist’s association, meanwhile, doesn’t welcome proposed strict doping bans (which would essentially double the length of ineligibility before a disciplined rider could return to a ProTour team) and continental teams are wondering why they’re suddenly second-class citizens.
It seems no one’s happy, except UCI president Hein Verbruggen.
In a testament to his willful single-mindedness, Verbruggen’s sometimes solitary vision of “the best teams in the best races” comes to fruition this week against the desires of many of cycling’s key players.
Verbruggen insists the streamlined, more easily digestible ProTour schedule will improve cycling “in terms of sport, finances, ethics and marketing.”
Verbruggen likes to point out that strict ProTour contract guidelines mean riders will be paid on time and will have health insurance, something that’s certainly not been the case in the past.
After some initial reluctance, most of cycling’s major players have joined the ProTour bandwagon.
The major tours, however, are fighting the ProTour tooth and nail.
They openly rebelled last October during the world championships when the companies behind the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España publicly expressed their misgivings about the ProTour format.
After a long winter of discontent punctuated by occasional meetings to clear the air, a gentleman’s agreement was hurriedly hashed out just before Paris-Nice to assure the ProTour would begin with the grand tours in line for at least this season.
So what are the grand tours complaining about?
There’s an intense tug-of-war going on between the race organizers on one side, in particular with the Tour’s parent company Amaury Sports Organization, and the teams and the UCI aligned on the other.
Behind the stage races are powerful media conglomerates which feel threatened by the power grab.
ASO not only owns the Tour, Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Nice among other races, but it also controls the leading French sports daily L’Equipe and the top French cycling magazine Vélo. The Giro is owned by RCS, which also owns La Gazzetta dello Sport, while Unipublic owns the Vuelta among other races as well as has interests in television.
Since their inception, the big races have been the rock upon which modern cycling was born. And with that success came influence and big money from selling everything from television rights to a place in a publicity caravan to newspapers.
Over the past 15 years, as the Tour de France’s international popularity grew faster than the rest of the sport, teams were left to the whims of ASO and the Tour organization. Even the UCI’s effort to build a World Cup series to counter-balance the French behemoth couldn’t stymie the Tour’s growing might.
The Tour had became so big that a place among the 21 or so teams lining up for the grande boucle was absolutely essential to earning multi-million dollar sponsorship contracts.
What the ProTour does is pry that power away from ASO and the other big race organizers and puts it into the hands of the teams and the UCI.
Under the new system, the 20 ProTour teams have the security of knowing they will be in the Tour and thus can sell that guarantee to sponsors. As a result, 16 of the 20 ProTour teams have contracts through the 2008 season, a long-term stability that modern cycling teams have never known.
Liberty Seguros sport director Manolo Saiz, who also serves as president of the professional teams association, blasts the grand tours as simply being self-centered at a time when cycling tries to create new strength for teams and riders.
“What’s very clear is that they are working to protect their own interests, not so much that of cycling. They should show some solidarity with the sport that has enriched them so,” Saiz said. “The ProTour is not going to die. The ProTour has its own identity and it was born to benefit everyone in cycling. Everyone should rally around it.”
Saiz admits there are still many unanswered details, but insists the ProTour is a “work in progress” that is open to suggestions from all parties.
It’s clear not everyone agrees with the ProTour vision, but only the big conglomerates had the muscle to stand up to the teams and the UCI.
Race organizers feel threatened by the ProTour on several fronts.
First, they are afraid of losing control of their events. The races are accustomed to “inviting” teams to their events, not being told which ones will come.
Secondly, there’s concern about the future of their events in the ProTour. Already several races, including such venerable events as the GP de Nations, have been cancelled simply because they weren’t included in the ProTour’s 27-race calendar.
The Giro and the Vuelta are fearful their events will be shortened or even left out of the ProTour altogether (the idea that the upstart Vuelta could be replaced by the media-rich Tour of Germany is already making the rounds).
Races are also worried about the long-term damage the struggle against doping has on cycling and, in turn, the image of their events. The much-hyped Ethics Charter is still a work in progress as the UCI, teams and riders squabble over how to sanction riders who fail doping tests.
The grand tours also aren’t convinced that the automatic 20-team ProTour lineup assures them of a quality field that best suits their needs. In spite of its own international success, the Tour fought hard to retain its French flavor and always gave a strong bias toward French teams in its wild-card selections. The same went for the Vuelta and the Giro.
Under the ProTour rules, the grand tours are left with, at best, two wild-card selections to give their races a national flavor.
A final, deeper concern is that the ProTour is the just first step toward making a run at the lucrative television rights. The teams and the UCI have emphatically said they’re not trying to make a money grab, but the race organizers aren’t so convinced.
In short, the big tours sense they’re losing more than gaining by being part of the ProTour.
The race organizations are preparing to play their trump card, something they call “historical rights,” which, in legal-speak, essentially means, “I’ve been around longer than you, so you can’t boss me around.”
Despite the glad-handing in Paris last weekend, some expect the impasse to ultimately be settled in court.
By then, Verbruggen will be long gone. He’s expected to leave the UCI by the end of the season, leaving the messing business of guiding his baby to adulthood to everyone else.