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By Andrew Hood
Cycling’s international racing calendar was turned upside down Thursday after the UCI announced that the three grand tours and select one-day classics are no longer part of the ProTour cycling calendar.
In a sweeping restructuring of the European racing calendar, the UCI vows to forge ahead with its controversial ProTour concept that will open with the Tour Down Under in 2008 and potentially include national tours in China and Russia in 2009.
“This is about being realistic and pragmatic,” McQuaid said. “It’s not a position that the UCI has created. (The grand tours) could have come aboard the ProTour to develop it. Instead, they’ve tried to destruct it rather than help build it.”
First introduced in the 2005 season with 20 teams, the ProTour league has consistently come under fire from race organizers of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.
Led by the powerful Amaury Sports Organization, which runs the Tour, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Nice and Paris-Roubaix, the three grand tours banded together to resist the program that guaranteed start positions for all 20 teams in all events in the ProTour calendar.
On Thursday, the UCI granted the “big three” their wish to no longer be part of the ProTour.
“On September 5, we received letters from the Tour, Giro and Vuelta and each said that they didn’t want to be part of the ProTour,” McQuaid sid. “It’s time we accept it and find an arrangement without them to develop the sport internationally.”
In 2008, a new schedule will be introduced with races such as the Tour and Giro relegated to a European calendar while existing races such as the Tour of Germany and the Clásica San Sebastián will remain as ProTour status (see schedule below).
None of the dates of the major races will change and all remain in their traditional places on the calendar, with the Giro in May, the Tour in July and the Vuelta in September.
The 2008 schedule will start with the Tour Down Under on Jan. 22 and end with a yet-to-be determined “finals” event in Oct. 5.
Races such as the Giro and Vuelta will be relegated to “European tour” status with the freedom to select whichever teams it wants to start. Under the new structure, the Tour will be required to include the remaining 18 ProTour teams.
It’s unclear how the grand tours will react to the changes that still would require the Tour to include automatic bids to 18 teams.
Last spring, ASO was ready to break away from the ProTour league and hold Paris-Nice under control of the French cycling federation.
McQuaid said any efforts to undermine the authority of the UCI from would-be rebel federations would be dealt with sharply and took direct aim at Olympic status for all disciplines, not just road racing.
“We would react very strongly to that,” McQuaid warned. “Ultimately, the French could be sanctioned and it could affect their participation in the Olympic Games.”
It was also unclear how teams will react to the changes. Team managers are scheduled to meet Friday in Stuttgart.
The decisions were formalized Thursday morning with meetings by the UCI ProTour Council. The only representatives from the teams were Roger Legeay, manager of Credit Agricole, and Patrick Lefevere, manager of QuickStep-Innergetic.
When it was introduced in 2005, the ProTour was spun as way to guarantee “the best teams in the best races.”
Now, with many of the major races out of the ProTour, UCI officials say the new format is the best to help promote the sport on an international scale.
“Teams are interested in these new markets and they see many sponsorship opportunities outside of Europe,” McQuaid insisted.
McQuaid said negotiations are underway with authorities in China and Russia to create new stage races in those emerging nations.
Among the changes:The three grand tours – Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España – as well as Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia – will be designated as part of a new European calendar. Races will be allowed to pick and choose teams as they see fit, though the Tour will be obligated to include all 18 ProTour teams.
Other major European races, such as Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, Flèche Wallone and Paris-Tours, will fall under hors categorie designation and be limited to 50 percent participation of ProTour teams.
18 ProTour teams – two less than the 20 from past three seasons – will part of the cycling league, with guaranteed starts in the Tour de France but not in other major races not part of the redrafted ProTour
A new world calendar will be introduced in 2008 that includes the remaining ProTour events, the world championships, a ProTour final and the Olympic Games, with the addition of new ProTour events such as the Tour Down Under in Australia, for a total of about 90 racing days.
New races will be developed in Russia and China. There was no mention of the Tour of California in the UCI’s plans.