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A conversation with Alain Rumpf: ‘Full steam ahead for ProTour’

The Tour de France starts this weekend as a rebel race. Or at least as a race that’s no longer part of the ProTour format. Cycling’s civil war has now simmered down to a Cold War, as the breakaway races, including the Tour, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España continue on their collective path apart from the ProTour calendar. The ProTour, meanwhile, is alive and kicking. Despite the departure of many of Europe’s most important and prestigious events, the ProTour project is moving forward with an ambitious plans to expand the format to Russia and China in 2009.

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By Andrew Hood

Rumpf's job involves a mix of planning and politics.

Rumpf’s job involves a mix of planning and politics.

Photo: Graham Watson

The Tour de France starts this weekend as a rebel race. Or at least as a race that’s no longer part of the ProTour format.

Cycling’s civil war has now simmered down to a Cold War, as the breakaway races, including the Tour, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España continue on their collective path apart from the ProTour calendar.

The ProTour, meanwhile, is alive and kicking. Despite the departure of many of Europe’s most important and prestigious events, the ProTour project is moving forward with an ambitious plans to expand the format to Russia and China in 2009.

To find out more about where the ProTour is heading, VeloNews recently sat down with UCI ProTour manager Alain Rumpf to discuss the calendar, the teams and sponsorship deals. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: It seems there’s been a change in focus for the ProTour, from ‘the best teams in the best races,’ to a global outlook since the split with the grand tours. Where is the ProTour going?

Alain Rumpf: With the opposition of ASO, we had to change the focus a little bit because they refused to work with the teams and the other organizers to make the ProTour, to have all their races in the ProTour calendar.

One should not forget that this discussion of globalization was already in the concept from the beginning. We already wanted to have a broader basis for the sport in the future. Already in 2003-04, we made a survey of all the international federations to profile their calendars, their races, a whole range of things, and we found that cycling was very strong, but we also found that the globalization of road cycling was very weak.

Track and mountain biking are already very globalized, but we found that 70 to 80 percent of all road racing was in four countries, Belgium, Spain, Italy and France. That is very good for those four countries, because that’s where cycling is very strong, the history is there, and that is something we want to keep.

We found in order to secure the place of cycling in the Olympics, we had to be much more global. Maintaining cycling as an Olympic sport is not only important for the UCI, but for all the international federations. Because if you are on the Olympic program, you receive money from the national governments and the IOC, and for many countries, the Olympic funding is a lot. With the ProTour and the five continental circuits, we wanted to have more races in more continents, so already at the beginning, we had this goal of going global, so that’s why we added in Benelux, Germany and Poland. That was the beginning, now it’s the next phase of this process.

VN: So to clarify, the ProTour is moving regardless of the attitude of the grand tours?

AR: Yes, I think for the time being, it’s better not to think about the grand tours, and just to work and do our jobs. Things are looking very good on globalization. In a sense, maybe this unfortunate situation was an opportunity that’s allowed cycling to go global much quicker. I think when you look at the other sports, it is a must. The feedback we get from team sponsors, from TV, we know we’re doing the right thing.

VN: At what point last year did the UCI and the grand tours reach a breaking point about the ProTour and what were the deciding factors?

AR: By August and September in 2007, after already three years of discussions, conflicts and polemics, the UCI came to the conclusion that it was better to let ASO do their own thing and focus on the teams and organizers on the rest of the sport. The conflict was creating a lot of damage for the sport. The attitude of ASO was very damaging for the rest of the sport. In order to safeguard the rest of the sport, the UCI decided to continue the development of the ProTour and the continental circuit without ASO.

VN: Next year, will the UCI remain the governing body of the breakaway races and will there be two separate calendars for the ProTour and the other events?

AR: The UCI wants to be the governing body for the entire sport, that’s our mission and I think that’s what most of the interested parties want to see. But now we face a situation that ASO has effectively broken away and they are organizing their races outside the UCI calendar, so I think the answer lies more with them than with the teams, the other organizers and the UCI.

VN: How much communication is there currently between the UCI and the breakaway races?

AR: At the moment, there is very little communication. There is a lot of communication between the UCI and the ProTour teams, organizers and riders, but not so much with ASO at the moment, because they are just not part of the family right now.

VN: How damaging has the fight between the grand tour organizers and the ProTour concept been to cycling?

AR: It has been very damaging, that’s why the UCI decided to face its responsibilities and try to end this conflict. Still, the attitude of ASO is bad for the sport, because they still want to set up another system with their own rules. Look at Paris-Nice, and apparently what is going to happen at the Tour, they had their own commissaires, their own anti-doping system. They had the French federation and the French government with them; they have set up a parallel system. That is bad for any sport.

VN: Concerning the fight against doping, are the anti-doping controls and results being shared between the grand tour organizers and the UCI?

AR: This is one of the bad consequences of ASO setting up their own system. There is no communication between the UCI anti-doping system and the ASO. I don’t know if we can call it a system, apparently they are doing controls. One should also question whether it’s good that a private organization is doing anti-doping because there is a big conflict of interest. What is going to happen when a positive case is declared on an ASO race? I am sure the ASO people have the best intentions, but when they have to make a decision with these results, after two Tours that have been marked by doping; I don’t know what they are going to do. Who knows? When you have seen the contract they have forced the teams to sign, that it’s so one-sided and they can make all the decisions, that’s one of the negative consequences of them trying to run their parallel organization.

VN: Despite the breakdown between the major organizers, the ProTour is full-steam ahead for the next four years, while some are saying that the ProTour should be eliminated altogether?

AR: The conflict created by ASO now four years ago has had some side effects and there are some stakeholders who are now opposed to the ProTour. The UCI is a democratic institution, so those federations have the possibility to have their voice heard at the congress, at the management committee, so that’s the political process. At the moment, the UCI management committee is, as you say, full steam ahead and fulfill the UCI’s mission. The ProTour is just a part of the UCI strategy to promote cycling around the world.

VN: So last fall after the decision to carry forward without the grand tours, the ProTour quickly expanded to the Tour Down Under, do you consider that a success?

AR: It was a great opportunity. The people from Down Under did a great job. It was a race with some tradition, with 10 years, but within 72 hours, they could decide that we could go forward in 2008. They did a great job, an excellent job. The riders who were a little bit reluctant to go there, ‘oh, it’s early, it’s far,’ but they were all really happy of what they found there.

When you see the quality of the organization, new races can be incentive for all the sport to raise the level. These people think differently. They don’t have the history of the sport. Let’s not be mistaken, I don’t want to say that globalization is good and that history is bad. History is very important, that’s why the UCI decided we’ll continue the ProTour without ASO, RSC and Unipublic, yet at the same time after discussions with the national federations, we decided to create this historic calendar. That’s where they belong, and it’s important, because that’s where the history of the sport lies, but we need to balance both sides. We’re trying to do it as well as we can in the current situation.

VN: Will the existing ProTour races remain in the ProTour calendar in 2009?

AR: All have confirmed their intention to be part of the ProTour in the future. They still have to go through a normal process to get their license renewed, a process that’s ongoing between now and August and September.

VN: How many teams for 2009?

AR: At the moment, we have nine teams for 2009. Astana, Ag2r, High Road, Liquigas, Lampre, Saunier Duval, Caisse d’Epargne, Milram and Gerolsteiner. Those are the nine who have the license and the rest of the teams are already confirmed their intention. We’re working with them, preparing their application, and we have some other teams that have interest to apply before the June 30 – before the next four years license.

The rules say a maximum of 20. This year we had 18 teams. The system worked well. We’ll see how many there will be there. The success and viability of the ProTour doesn’t depend on the number of teams that are in there. We already know that we have the critical mass to continue, which is good for the difficult moment that cycling is going through. This is not an issue at the moment. (Editor’s note: The interview was conducted in mid-June. Rumpf told VeloNews in an e-mail that the complete list of ProTour teams for 2009 will be released soon.)

VN: What’s the latest on the stage race in Russia?

AR: There’s no name so far, but we are about to sign the contract with the Russia authorities, so it’s looking good. We had a site inspection in April with Charlie Mottet, so we know from sporting point of view, they can produce a good race, with good roads, good hotels. It’s near the Black Sea, it’s mountainous, and some stages will be hard, others looking easier. The initial project is for four years.

VN: Why May, the race will coincide with the Giro d’Italia?

AR: We had a brainstorming session with the teams, riders in February to discuss the future of the ProTour calendar. We identified three windows for new races. February and the first-half of March for races in southern hemisphere or the northern hemisphere where the weather is good this time of year. The others were May and September, Russia will be for May, and we’re looking for September for China.

VN: Will a Chinese race be on the calendar in 2009? If so, will it be in the same area as the current Qinghai race?

AR: At the moment, we are at the initial stages of negotiations with the Chinese. Probably to begin, it will be in one single province or region, because it’s simpler to organize. At the moment, everyone is focused on the Olympics, but many people are looking for something to do after the Olympics. We are expecting it in 2009 at the moment.

VN: Doesn’t the calendar, with races in Australia, Russia and China, put too much strain on the racers? On the teams?

AR: We have to do it on a step-by-step basis, but we’re doing this close collaboration with teams. We’re not going to send the teams where they have no interest in going. We’re going to work with them on the dates and the calendar. We are talking with their representatives. It’s also new, so they have to adapt themselves. Recently I was speaking with a team manager who is fully behind this process. And he said that we may just have to buy a container. Instead of sending our bikes with our riders to California or wherever, we’ll buy a container. It’s like a workshop we can travel with it all over the world. It’s just like what the Formula 1 teams do, much on a smaller scale. The teams just have to adapt. You see that they doing it.

VN: Is there any progress for finding a title sponsor for the ProTour circuit?

AR: That’s part of the concept. In the initial period of four years, we focused as a ProTour as a sporting concept. I think now we have defined this concept and we are working with teams and organizers who support the concept. Now we are ready to sell it to sponsors, to TV stations. We have just formed a separate unit that will take care of this apart from the UCI. It is a separate unit that will take care of the commercial aspects. It’s a company that will have a link to the UCI, it’s not the UCI that will sell the marking and television rights of the ProTour. This company will be involved with the new races. We’ll make sure that only top (production companies) will look after those races. It will be good production, good quality. We think that organizers could work together with one single production company to decrease the costs and increase the quality. That’s all projects with this unit. (Note: Rumpf later wrote in an e-mail: “The unit is currently called ‘service and development unit.’ It is a company controlled by UCI, whose CEO will be appointed in the near future.”)

VN: The assumed threat to TV rights was one of the main sticking points for the grand tours, so is this a move toward gaining control of the TV rights by the UCI?

AR: That’s what they said was the issue. We don’t understand, because never has the UCI wanted to take those rights. It was always meant to be done in collaboration with the aim of growing the cake. We felt that those big organizers had a responsibility, of being solidarity with the teams and the organizers, to make an attractive package from marketing and television point of view. They decided that they did not want to work with the rest of the stakeholders, so we’re doing it with the others. In Europe, there are two sports that the TV companies are very happy about because it’s very cheap – that’s cycling and skiing. They have so many rights holder they can cherry-pick and wait to the last moment and get a better price. It’s good for (TV), but bad for the sports because they are undersold. It’s more difficult for the Dauphiné Libéré to sell its race to sponsors than if it were part of a more global package with benefits all around the world. That’s what going to start doing actively next year.