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Cookson defends ASO-UCI deal; no special scrutiny for Bahrain team

UCI's Cookson defends ASO deal and says there's nothing in the UCI's rules to prevent Bahrain team from gaining WorldTour status

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SAINT LO, France (VN) — UCI president Brian Cookson defended the recent “peace treaty” with powerful Tour de France organizer ASO, insisting it avoid a costly new round of cycling wars.

A week before the Tour de France, the UCI announced a new agreement that assures ASO’s catalogue of racing titles will remain within the WorldTour structure. The agreement also expands the WorldTour calendar with new, still-unannounced events as well as introduces a controversial relegation/promotion system among top teams.

“Nobody wanted a war in cycling,” Cookson told VeloNews. “It would not have benefited anyone. We have successfully brought ASO into the fold, and we have a few months to work out the details. That’s what we’ll be spending our time on. The last thing we want is all of this to flare up again.”

Last December, ASO surprised everyone when it threatened to pull all of its racing properties out of the WorldTour, and organize them under the European racing calendar. That sudden rupture came just as the UCI was hoping to reach agreement over ongoing negotiations to restructure elite men’s pro cycling.

ASO, which owns and operates the Tour de France, Vuelta a España and some major one-week races and classics, was unhappy with long-term licenses proposed for rival racing events as well as WorldTour teams, sources said.

After some behind-the-scenes negotiations, UCI brought ASO back into the fold, with the relegation/promotion idea firmly in the plans for the future. It’s something ASO was pushing, and something many of the top teams hate. The broad idea is that the top-ranked Professional-Continental team will be promoted to the WorldTour, while the lowest-rank team will slip to Pro-Conti status. Some say the soccer-like system will inject new life into what’s otherwise a “closed system,” while teams are skeptical because they say it would under-cut their ability to assure sponsors of racing at the top level.

Cookson said that the fine print of the agreement is still to be hammered out, but stressed that it was important to have a foundation that ASO could be happy with, with the carrot that teams will have three years at the WorldTour level from 2017 to 2019.

“What we’ve got is three years of stability. For the first two years, no changes, and for the third year, there is a ‘soft landing,’ and the first two teams will have participation rights as well, so it’s not quite as big a deal if one might think,” Cookson said. “This is all flexible. Not all the pro-conti teams are that keen of going to the WorldTour level anyway, due to the implications of the costs and so on, so I don’t think it’s as a big deal as some might fear.

“Let’s look at this over the next few months, and the optimum number of teams that we can all live with,” Cookson continued. “The most important thing is that we create a stable foundation for everyone. That’s the good result out of this, and we still have to refine some of the details, I think we can keep this together.”

UCI’s hands tied on concerns over Bahrain team
Cookson also addressed concerns about a possible new top-level team backed by the crown prince of Bahrain that is expected to be racing by 2017. Activists have raised concerns about possible human-rights abuses in the wake of a heavy government crackdown since the “Arab spring” in 2011, with reports that thousands have been arrested, with even some reports of torture.

Cookson said the UCI still has yet to receive an official application for a 2017 racing license, but said there is little in the UCI rules that would allow for making subjective decisions on issues raised by critics over the Bahrain government.

“They will have to comply with UCI standards, and the ethical standards of all teams,” Cookson said. “If it’s beyond sport, it’s not a concern for us, but if a country or an individual has committed a criminal offense that excludes them from being involved in any international activity, the UCI will respect that.

“If that’s not the case, and if it’s just speculation, then it’s outside our jurisdiction to make judgment based on allegations, which may well be denied,” he continued. “The important thing is the integrity of our regulations and the adherence to the rules of team management. We cannot go beyond that, but we do not expect to go below that, either.”