Ochowicz on UCI reform: ‘Still a work in progress’

BMC Racing's general manager says changes to the UCI's racing and team structure are far from final, but progress was made this week.

The UCI announced Tuesday that cycling’s major stakeholders edged closer to a consensus following two days of meetings in Barcelona.

Reforms expected to be introduced by the 2017 racing season now include the possibility of expanding the WorldTour calendar as well as three-year licenses for top teams.

VeloNews caught up with BMC Racing’s general manager Jim Ochowicz on his take on the ongoing negotiations between cycling’s governing body, the teams, and major race organizers. A BMC representative was present at the Barcelona meeting Tuesday, while Ochowicz was traveling to Spain to attend the team’s December training camp, but he’s been staying abreast of the latest developments. He said there is still work to be done until all the major parties are in agreement.

VeloNews: What’s your take on the latest negotiations in Barcelona? Is there real consensus among the stakeholders?
Jim Ochowicz: I don’t think everyone’s on the same page yet. I do think the stakeholders have come closer during this session in Barcelona to a consensus on a number of issues. It’s still a work in progress. Nothing is absolutely confirmed yet to how it might look. There is still some debate on some issues.

VN: What concerns do the teams have?
JO: I am still concerned about the number of teams in WorldTour events. That was laid out in part of the briefings of team structures, and how many teams would participate in grand tours and in other events. I am still of the feeling that we need to reduce the number of riders in the peloton. Other people have brought up the issue, and it’s good to see that safety has been discussed over the past few meetings.

VN: Overall during the talks, there appears to be more consensus and less confrontation. Is that a realistic assessment?
JO: The final solution is not there yet, but I think they made a lot of progress. And I applaud them for sitting down at the table. We are all partners in the sport. Sitting down and discussing issues is important. There is still a ways to go between now and 2017. There is some discussion of adding new WorldTour races, and none of that will be implemented until at least June. So there is still some time to negotiate things and see what the final solution might look like.

VN: There is talk of reform, but a lot of the major talking points — such as streamlining the racing calendar, the reduction of the size of the teams, or the relegation of teams out of the WorldTour — all are off the table. And it seems the calendar and team structure remains largely as it is, so how much reform is there?
JO: Perhaps there isn’t one dramatic item, but the guarantee of licensing was a big one for the teams. Having a WorldTour license for three years as opposed to a one-year permit is very important. It just gives you the ability to discuss with sponsors that you have a valid, three-year license, and that you will be present in the WorldTour events. It’s nice to know that you’re going to be there, rather than having to negotiate your way in.

VN: How are relations between the teams and the major race organizers?
JO: We work with them all year round, and in terms of keeping us with a strong racing calendar, they do a good job. We’re racing from January to October. I don’t see a lot of change for them, other than the fact that it looks like they’re opening up the calendar to more WorldTour events.

VN: Wasn’t the notion of streamlining the calendar, and having smaller teams, reducing them from 30 to 25, a big part of the reform? That seems to be off the radar now.
JO: There does need to be some control of what races we do. But for some races that might go to the WorldTour, say it be Yorkshire or Colorado, those are races we already do, it wouldn’t change our calendar at all. Where it might change is if there are races in Asia, races that we currently don’t go to and then we’re forced to participate, that would be a little different. You can only change so much at one time. We’re pretty stable now with the number of WorldTour teams, between 16 and 18, and all the races on the WorldTour calendar are pretty stable. Where you have to be careful is if you start to expand the calendar too much, and include even more teams in those events.

VN: The Tour de France and other race organizers suggested that one way to improve safety is to reduce the size of teams in major stage races from nine riders to eight. Is that something the teams agree with?
JO: I applaud them for considering the safety issue, but I don’t think the solution is a reduction of riders per team. The problem is the quality of teams that get on the start line of some of these major races. There are some teams that are borderline, and they bring some young riders that are just not ready to race 250km. That’s just a fact of life. They get in trouble, and that can be a problem for the peloton. I think the answer is to reduce the number of teams in the races. We start [the Tour of] Flanders with 25 teams, so why not 22 or 23 teams? Or the same at a grand tour? Those 20 riders that are not in the peloton open up a lot of space for those who are there. I am not saying you cannot race a grand tour with eight riders, and I applaud them for raising the issue of safety, but I think it’s more a question of the number and quality of teams, and that some teams shouldn’t even be there in the first place.

VN: Is it realistic to race a grand tour with less than nine riders? Would you prefer nine instead of eight?
JO: It’s hard to do the Tour de France with less than nine. We would be hard-pressed to start a grand tour with less than nine. With 22 days of racing, with the transfers, the demands of the race, with the weather, illnesses, with other safety issues, you would have some real chances that teams would finish with just two or three riders. You would have teams that were almost not in the race. There is a lot to do in a grand tour, bringing up water bottles, protecting the leader, doing the work, and if you lose one of those guys, someone else has got to do the job. I am not saying you couldn’t do it, but I am saying it would be very difficult. It’s not such an issue for the one-day races or the shorter stage races, but in the grand tours, racing three weeks is a long time to do it only with eight racers.

VN: Another argument that Tour director Christian Prudhomme made is that reducing teams to eight riders would create a more dynamic, less-controlled race; do you agree with that idea?
JO: I don’t know. If you’re in the yellow jersey, you still have to do the work. And you don’t put eight guys on the front, anyway. There is always a certain rhythm to the race. On some days, one team does a lot of the work, and other days, others have their team interests to step up. I don’t think that would change.