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Op Ed: John Eustice on the Tour of the Battenkill controversy

The Univest grand Prix organizer weighs in on the dispute between the Tour of the Battenkill and USA Cycling.

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Editor’s note: Manhattan resident John Eustice was one of the pioneer American racing cyclists to break into European pro cycling. He founded and captained the first American team to race in the Giro d’Italia, and is a two-time U.S. professional champion. He also is the organizer of the Univest Grand Prix, a long-running UCI-sanctioned race in Pennsylvania. We asked him to share his thought on the dispute between the organizers of the Tour of the Battenkill and USA Cycling.

I have been following the current Tour of the Battenkill vs. USA Cycling drama with a mixture of sadness, frustration and alarm. Sadness at the sight of a terrific race following a path that can only bring it harm; frustration with the unjust and unfounded vilification of USA Cycling, and alarm caused by the danger this conflict poses for the North American professional racing class.

A bit of background should help in clarifying the current situation.

The UCI runs professional cycling in somewhat the same way that FIFA rules pro soccer and has a very distinct view of how international pro road racing is to be structured. A perceived problem with the UCI rule book is that it is very Euro-centric, and often does not take into consideration the great, often cultural differences between the European circuit and national (not UCI) racing in North America, Australia, etc. The main topic of conversation in our USPRO Board meetings is how to bridge the differences and help the U.S. scene progress.

Classic road racing is the art form that the UCI is mostly concerned with, and certainly the most protective of. They want more UCI races around the world, especially in the USA, and they want these races to follow their WorldTour and Continental Circuit structures. The UCI considers professionals to be Pro Continental and ProTeam only — Continental teams are really amateur organizations, without mandated insurance, salaries or anti-doping programs. They simply do not want their Pro Conti and ProTeam riders racing outside of the UCI system and feel that if promoters want the elite riders, then they must produce races according to their strict Swiss code.

So how does a North American team go to the Pro Conti level yet maintain enough domestic presence to justify its sponsorship with only eight or so UCI races available to them here? The UCI’s answer is: “Make more UCI races.” And they’ve lowered their minimum road race circuit length to help that initiative along, thanks to USA Cycling lobbying efforts. But more UCI races is a long term solution and a short term one was needed. So the rulebook was perused and, joy! The clause was discovered that allows pros to race “federation approved” domestic criteriums, giving our Pro Conti and ProTeam riders an additional 14 possible national competitions. Why did the UCI relent on this issue? Because for them, criteriums are … criteriums. Nice events for the public, but not high-level international competitions. They have free laps, for goodness sake, and unlike road racing, safety is not a major issue with a small closed course.

And where does this leave the rest of the NRC promoters? With a clear choice of upgrading to UCI status and getting the top UCI riders, or of staying national and catering to the (excellent and very exciting in my view) domestic racing class — which is far from a death sentence for an event.

USA Cycling came up with the idea of combining the pro/am UCI races (1.2 and 2.2) with the National Racing Calendar, a move that can help facilitate the upgrading of our top races to UCI standards and the expansion of our pro class. This has worked beautifully for my Univest Grand Prix: we love being a 1.HC NRC race, yet are very happy with the 1.2 UCI classification — the best of both worlds in my opinion. Catering to the ProTeam class requires seven-figure budgets and I don’t see a lot of those around these days …

What is needed is patience. The patience to allow our pros to keep a toehold in the domestic sport, which will not only keep their sponsors in the game, but will encourage other teams to move up to the Conti and Pro Conti levels. To create a true pro racing class here in North America so that it becomes fairly easy to assemble the field for a domestic UCI 1.1 (pros only) race. The fact is that the teams going Pro Conti, and the teams wanting to go to that level, are not that interested in criteriums. They want road races, and the current perceived unfair advantage of the NRC criteriums over the NRC road races will soon be reversed with an expansion of the pro racing class. But the first step in that process is to accept this extended UCI olive branch, think of the overall community good, and allow progress to be continue.

The Tour of the Battenkill is a magnificent race, one with real cache, a devout following (something of a religion here in NYC), our own Roubaix or Strada Bianche, and is made for TV. But their current actions could cause the UCI to clamp down on even the criteriums, which would be a tragedy for the pros and everyone who has worked so hard to develop pro racing. The anger aimed at USA Cycling is misdirected — it is the UCI’s rulebook and USA Cycling has little real power in the matter.

We’ve all had our tough times: I had the Tour of Missouri right on top of Univest for four years and they sucked all of the racing and production talent away from us. But this is a sport of grueling endurance and suffering — the same for the promoters as for the racers. USA Cycling crafted a compromise to help the sport, and they will come up with more solutions given the chance. The cycling community loves and supports the Tour of the Battenkill: they in turn need now to stop, take a deep breath, and lend their support back to the community.

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