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McQuaid warns that UCI reforms will give ASO upper hand

Based on his experience as UCI president, Pat McQuaid says the latest round of reforms will favor Tour de France and other race organizers.

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Former UCI president Pat McQuaid cautioned that plans to reduce the number of WorldTour teams from 18 to 15 will only play into the hands of Tour de France owner ASO.

Speaking to VeloNews, the now-retired McQuaid said a UCI reform project to reduce the number of WorldTour teams will tilt the balance of power too much in favor of race organizers and step back from a system that’s “worked well” for more than a decade.

“It sounds very much like ASO,” McQuaid told VeloNews on Tuesday. “It sounds like the same arguments and points they were always making with us. They’ve always wanted 15 teams.”

McQuaid’s comments come as the UCI is pressing forward with an ambitious reform project that could be approved as soon as this year and introduced by the 2020 racing season.

A meeting is scheduled this week in Spain between the UCI, teams, riders, and organizers to update the stakeholders on the status of the makeover. In a story published Monday on VeloNews, team officials expressed concern about the sweeping reform plans.

UCI was not available for comment. Officials said UCI president David Lappartient would be available to the media during a press conference at the upcoming world championships in Austria.

Central to the reorganization is a major restructuring of the WorldTour and Pro Continental divisions. The plan would reduce the WorldTour from 18 to 15 teams — a rollback that could see between 120 to 160 fewer WorldTour riders by 2020 — while creating a qualifying system to allow five rebranded “Pro” teams from the second division to race in the grand tours. Two other wild-card invitations would remain for race organizers to bring the peloton to 22 teams for the major tours.

That might sound good for smaller teams eager to earn a grand tour invitation, but McQuaid expressed worry that the cycling governing body might be giving away too much.

“I think the UCI needs to be very careful about the risks they take if they reduce from 18 to 15 teams,” McQuaid said. “The fallout could be more than they might think.”

McQuaid, who is now enjoying retirement in southern France, says he’s heard it all before. In fact, he says the reform outline which also includes a relegation/promotion option sounds eerily similar to what ASO — Tour de France owner Amaury Sport Organisation — has been pushing for all along.

In an interview earlier this season, newly elected Lappartient promised he would not do ASO’s bidding, but McQuaid cautioned that the UCI might be giving away too much to ASO at the costs of the interest of teams and riders.

“ASO wants to weaken the teams,” McQuaid said. “They are afraid of the teams of getting strong, of getting united and going after the TV rights. ASO always wanted to keep control.”

McQuaid served as UCI president for two terms from 2005-2013. And while his administration was fraught with doping scandals of the era, it was also often at loggerheads with ASO in a bitter turf war.

McQuaid, 69, said his administration worked hard to professionalize the WorldTour ranks. Starting with former UCI president Hein Verbruggen, the UCI required teams to have bank guarantees, formalized contracts, undergo audits, and create legitimate businesses in order to receive racing licenses. The UCI also charges an annual fee of more than $100,000 to the teams.

As part of that bargain, the UCI created the WorldTour that guaranteed the biggest teams would have starting spots in the most important races on the international calendar, particularly the Tour de France.

The major race organizers pushed back. Led by officials within the Tour de France organization, ASO and the UCI tangled in courts across Europe in what McQuaid described as a “dirty war” that lasted three years. McQuaid described a face-to-face sit down with ASO owners from the Amaury family in the offices of former IOC president Jacques Rogge that led to an unofficial ceasefire in 2008.

“We won that war,” McQuaid said. “We fought with them for more than three years because they never wanted 18 teams. They wanted more wildcards. They wanted to keep the teams weak and they wanted to always dictate to the teams. Fifteen was the number they always wanted.”

Since that “detente,” at least according to McQuaid, teams could build a financial base with the assurance that the WorldTour teams would be starting the Tour and all the other major races. McQuaid said teams need the stability of knowing they will race in the grand tours and classics each season in order to pitch to would-be sponsors.

Without that guarantee of racing the Tour and the added threat of relegation, McQuaid predicts some teams will close and subsequently fewer riders and staff will have jobs.

“There is nothing in it for the teams. Nothing in it for the cyclists. Teams will disappear,” he continued. “The ones who are winning are the organizers.”

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