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By Justin Davis, Agence France Presse
Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich could cross swords on more than one occasion this season if the Union Cycliste Internationale’s ambitious plans for major reforms come to fruition.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour de France winner, and Armstrong, the six-time winner and record holder, hardly ever race each other outside of the Tour. But that could all change. Or at least that is what UCI president Hein Verbruggen hopes will happen when the system that has been in place for nearly two decades is ripped up and replaced by an elite league which, in theory, will guarantee cycling’s top stars ride in the most prestigious races.
Verbruggen’s brainchild, the 27-race UCI ProTour, aims to revolutionize a sport that, in many European countries, is enshrined at both the regional and local levels. The benefits of the reforms, which will exclude tens of popular races from the elite calendar, remain to be seen. And there are still plenty of detractors, including cycling legend Eddy Merckx.
Merckx, considered the sport’s greatest champion, feels that many popular races in cycling-mad countries like his native Belgium will die after being excluded from the ProTour. And he feels that getting the likes of Armstrong and Ullrich competing together is not so simple.
“In principle it’s a good idea having 19 top teams lining up for the major races in the season,” said the 59-year-old, one of five men to win the Tour de France five times and numerous other prestigious titles.
“But there’s no guarantees for anyone that someone like Lance Armstrong will line up for any of the three major stage races this season. For me, it’s a real paradox.”
Nevertheless, on March 6 the Paris-Nice stage race will herald a new era in cycling when it becomes the first-ever ProTour event. And it won’t be without a touch of irony.
Paris-Nice is organized by Amaury Sports Organization (ASO), the same company that runs the Tour de France, which, having survived on its own for over a century, has had difficulty accepting the UCI’s ambitious reforms.
The ProTour will include the three major stage races of Italy, France and Spain, well-known one-week stage races and all of the one-day races that formed part of the World Cup, which is now extinct.
The enormity of the reforms are widely recognized, and many feel that too much is being attempted in too little time. However, Verbruggen is adamant they are necessary if cycling is to exist into the future and extend beyond the shadow of the Tour de France.
“We want the best teams in all the best races,” said Verbruggen, who met opposition from the Tour de France organizers with his own determined response by saying the ProTour would go it alone without them.
“It’s something the Tour de France enjoys but it’s not necessarily the same for the Giro or the Tour of Spain.”
The workings of the ProTour have also had major ramifications for the professional teams, who will have to buy a four-year license costing 100,000 euros ($129,000) for the privilege of racing in the series, and top that up with a 50,000-euro registration fee every other year.
In 2004 teams only had to pay around 13,000 euros to the UCI, and they are set to incur more costs as teams boost their rosters to be able to compete in all 27 races. On average, it means an extra 62 days of racing a year.
The ProTour’s “ethical code” will also be one of its backbones. A ProTour team involved in doping or other unethical affairs risks losing its costly license.
“They might have four-year licenses, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be thrown out if they do not meet our strict criteria,” Verbruggen said.
As for Armstrong, the 33-year-old American has hinted he could miss the Tour de France this July in favor of the one-day classics. But whether he or Ullrich have aims on becoming the ProTour’s first big champion is yet to be seen.
The 27-race UCI ProTour circuit
19:Milan-San Remo (I)
3:Tour of Flanders (B)
4-8:Tour of the Basque country (Sp)
17:Amstel Gold Race (Ned)
20:Fleche Wallonne (B)
26-May 1:Tour of Romandy (Swi)
7-29:Giro d’Italia (I)
16-22:Tour of Catalunya (Sp)
5-12:Criterium of Dauphine Libere (F)
11-19:Tour of Switzerland (Swi)
19:Grand Prix of Eindhoven (Ned) team time trial
2-24:Tour de France (F)
31:HEW Classics (G)
3-10:Tour of Benelux (B/Ned/Lux)
13:San Sebastian Classic (Sp)
15-23:Tour of Germany (G)
27-September 18:Vuelta a España (Sp)
28:Grand Prix Ouest-France (F)
12-18:Tour of Poland (Pol)
2:Zurich Championship (Swi)
15:Tour of Lombardy (I)