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McQuaid defends UCI’s role as Tour of Beijing looms

UCI president Pat McQuaid defended cycling's governing body's move into event promotion and argued that next week's Tour of Beijing will give the UCI a stronger financial base for the future to promote its agenda.

UCI president Pat McQuaid defended cycling’s governing body’s move into event promotion and argued that next week’s Tour of Beijing will give the UCI a stronger financial base for the future to promote its agenda.

The five-day Tour of Beijing, which begins Wednesday and runs through Sunday, breaks new ground for the UCI. The debut Chinese race marks the first time the UCI will be organizing an elite men’s professional bike race under its new commercial arm, Cycling Global Promotion.

Rather than oversee rules and regulations under its traditional role, the UCI will actually have a stake in the financial pie.

Some have suggested that represents a conflict of interest, but McQuaid insists it’s all part of the UCI’s larger mandate to promote cycling in non-traditional markets.

“Not in the least. The UCI is the regulating body of cycling and we will continue to do that, but one of our major roles is the development of the sport globally. We don’t see a conflict of interest,” McQuaid told VeloNews. “The UCI has a new commercial arm and one of its goal is to increase revenues for the UCI. We need money to promote the sport.”

The UCI created the Cycling Global Promotion in September, 2009, to promote the development of professional races in emerging markets, such as China and Russia, where the sport does not have the same historical roots as in Europe.

The Beijing tour is the first of what the UCI hopes will be more races where it stands to turn a profit, with McQuaid saying the UCI needs additional revenue streams.

“The UCI needs money on a continuing basis. We are not a private company, we don’t make much profits. And all the money we do make goes back into the sport,” McQuaid said. “We have no conflict of interest there. Any money we make goes back into the development of the sport.”

It’s not exactly clear where any subsequent profits would go. Cycling Global Promotion is registered as a separate legal entity, but controlled by the UCI.

It shares an address with the UCI’s headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland, and is directed by Alain Rumpf, a lawyer who formerly worked on the ProTour project who’s worked for the UCI since 1994. It’s not clear whether profits would be destined for the UCI’s general operating fund or be doled out to individuals within the group.

McQuaid’s comments to VeloNews suggest the money would be used for UCI-backed projects.

The Tour of Beijing has been clouded in controversy since last spring in the long-running battle between the UCI and many of the elite top pro teams over the race radio debate.

The teams threatened to boycott the Beijing tour because most want to continue to use race radios in the top professional races, something the UCI wanted to phase out entirely in all sanctioned races by the end of this year.

A final-hour compromise by the UCI to postpone a decision to possibly ban race radios at least until the 2013 season opened the door for the elite teams to bring their riders to China.

“We are hoping we can find a resolution over the next season. Our viewpoints are still the same: The teams still want race radio and the UCI thinks cycling will be better without radios,” McQuaid said. “An independent commission will discuss with all the stakeholders and toward the end of next year come up with a decision. It’s better to do it that way, because this has nothing to do with the Tour of Beijing.”

The bitter war over race radios has overshadowed other simmering issues, such as the question of whether it’s appropriate for the UCI to get into the race ownership game in the first place.

Pro races have traditionally been funded and organized by private companies looking to make money off sponsorships and TV rights or or non-profit entities underwriting a race budget to promote a region for tourism or business development. Early races were often used as marketing tools to drive newspaper sales, but many of those races, such as the Dauphiné Libéré or Midi Libre, have either been swallowed up by ASO or closed altogether.

In Europe, the top end of the sport is dominated by the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) and RCS Sport, two privately-owned media conglomerates which own or control most of the major European races between them.

ASO owns the Tour de France, part of the Vuelta a España as well as Paris-Nice, the Critérium du Dauphiné and other one-day classics such as Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, among others, while RCS Sport owns the Giro d’Italia, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo.

The UCI has often been at loggerheads with these two powerful media groups. The protracted battle over the ProTour project dating back to 2005 was seen in large part by ASO and RCS Sport as a run at their profits by the UCI as well as an attempt to take control of their properties.

Under a cease-fire reached in late 2008, which saw the exit of contentious ASO boss Patrice Leclerc, tempers have cooled considerably between cycling’s governing body and ASO and RCS Sport. The UCI has since redirected its efforts beyond Europe to target potentially lucrative projects in the developing world.

McQuaid said the UCI is not looking to erode the power of the major European race organizers, and said the UCI is using its clout and influence to enter emerging markets that do not have a traditional cycling background, but represent potentially huge, untapped markets for sponsorship, promotion and talent.

“In the long-term, it’s not just one project. There will be more projects in the coming years,” McQuaid said. “We are looking primarily at the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China – because these are the four strongest, growing economies in the world. The UCI should have a presence in these countries. They have growing economies, with huge populations, with huge potential for sponsors, for talent, and potential to promote the current team sponsors in much bigger markets. It makes sense from that point of view.”

According to McQuaid, Chinese officials approached the UCI after the 2008 Olympic Summer Games with the idea of promoting a stage race in and around the Olympic facilities.

The UCI has since tapped ASO to help run the technical, nuts-and-bolts operational side of the race this week in Beijing.

“It makes logical sense to have (ASO) run the race,” McQuaid said. “The European pros expect a level of expertise they see in Europe on a daily basis. When you transfer the peloton to a country like China, it just doesn’t work with local officials. You have to have officials around the race who are used to working at that level.”

With ASO and the teams on board, it looks like the UCI’s first foray into race promotion could be a success. Who or what that Tour of Beijing ends up serving remains to be seen.