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Who gets ProTour licenses and why?

Dear Explainer, I always end up mumbling and changing the subject when someone asks me to explain the ProTour licensing process, especially this time of the year when new teams are forming and seem to be vying for position. Could you explain how this licensing process works? How many Pro Tour teams can there be? Who decides which teams those are? On what basis is that decision made? Jacque Van Audenhove Knoxville, Tennessee Dear Jacque,

By Charles Pelkey

Dear Explainer,
I always end up mumbling and changing the subject when someone asks me to explain the ProTour licensing process, especially this time of the year when new teams are forming and seem to be vying for position. Could you explain how this licensing process works?

How many Pro Tour teams can there be? Who decides which teams those are? On what basis is that decision made?
Jacque Van Audenhove
Knoxville, Tennessee

Dear Jacque,
You aren’t the only one confused by the ProTour, I assure you, especially given the number of changes the series has undergone since its debut in 2005.

Before the ProTour was created, the top tier of cycling was defined by the Division 1 (D1) teams and major races like the grand tours and a series of one-day events that fell under the UCI’s old World Cup. As you might recall, the idea was to take all of the top races on the calendar, combine them under the umbrella of the ProTour and package them as a single season-long calendar.

The grand tour promoters – especially the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), the owner of the Tour – were reluctant to hand over control of their events to the UCI, particularly since part of the deal would send some television revenues to the governing body as well.

The ensuing fight has been well-covered, so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that the grand tours — as well as a host of other ASO properties, including Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège — are no longer part of the ProTour and now make up the UCI’s Historic calendar. So much for uniformity and unanimity.

Anyway, part of the motivation for creating the ProTour was to allow the UCI to exercise greater control over the teams themselves. By creating a new upper tier of teams, the UCI hoped to add a greater level of stability to team sponsorships while imposing strict conduct and financial requirements.

Under existing UCI rules – section 2.15.009, for those who read the rule book – the UCI can grant only a limited number of ProTour licenses: “A maximum of 20 UCI ProTour team licences may be issued, where applicable, in accordance with the geographic distribution determined by the UCI ProTour council.”

By limiting the number of ProTour licenses to 20, the UCI hoped also to make that permit a valuable commodity itself, one worth protecting.

For the most part, ProTour licenses are issued for four years. There have been a few exceptions to that, but the goal is to issue a four-year license. The rules outline the criteria by which the UCI is to judge those applications, including “assurances of financial soundness,” compliance with UCI rules – particularly doping rules – and the “absence of other elements likely to bring cycle sport into substantial disrepute.”

The ProTour Council also reviews the quality of riders based on previous results and conducts a full audit of the management company’s financial practices. In its first year, 20 teams held ProTour licenses. As teams left – Domina Vacanze and Fassa Bortolo at the end of 2005 – others stepped up to take their places.

However, a combination of factors, including a few of the usual doping scandals and the ongoing fight between the UCI and the grand tour promoters, resulted in only 18 teams holding ProTour licenses over the past two seasons.

Some teams, the Cervélo TestTeam chief among them, found it just as lucrative to take out a UCI Professional Continental license.

Indeed, as recently as a year ago, there was some question as to whether a sufficient number of teams would even bother with the ProTour. That doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore. This year, the ProTour Council is weighing applications from several teams and may bump up against the mandated limit of 20. ProTour Manager Alain Rumpf has said that the organization will base its decisions on the quality of applications and feels no obligation to grant a total of 20 licenses.

As we said, there are 18 teams that held ProTour licenses this season. Of those, five are set to expire at the end of the year. That means that there are seven spots available if the ProTour Council opts to issue the maximum number of licenses for 2010. Each of the teams with lapsing licenses has applied for renewal.

As of today, two of those seven spots have been filled. The Council issued a license renewal to Ag2r and granted a new license to the heavily financed Sky team from Great Britain.

• Astana, (Kazakhstan)
• Caisse d’Epargne, (Spain)
• Columbia-HTC, (USA)
• Euskaltel-Euskadi, (Spain)
• Française des Jeux, (France)
• Fuji-Servetto, (Spain)
• Garmin-Slipstream, (USA)
• Katusha, (Russia)
• Liquigas, (Italy)
• Quick Step, (Belgium)
• Rabobank, (Netherlands)
• Saxo Bank, (Denmark)
• Silence-Lotto, (Belgium)
• Bbox Bouygues Telecom, (France)*
• Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne, (France)*
• Lampre-N.G.C, (Italy)*
• Milram, (Germany)*
• Ag2r La Mondiale, (France)**

• Sky, (Great Britain) ***

* License expires at end of year – renewal application filed.
** License renewal application approved.
*** New application for 2010 approved

Among those with outstanding applications are the renewals from Lampre, Milram, Cofidis and Bbox. The likelihood of those renewals being issued are quite high, given that each of the teams has performed reasonably well over the past four years, managed finances up to ProTour standards and avoided the old “elements likely to bring cycle sport into substantial disrepute” problem.

Both the Skil-Shimano team and the new RadioShack team filed applications for 2010, but the Skil squad has withdrawn its paperwork, opting to stay on the Pro Continental Team route for another year. RadioShack will probably get its license approved, so we could see a 20-team roster for next year.

Or will we?

The UCI rules also grant the ProTour Council the right to conduct an annual review of teams whose licenses aren’t slated to expire. Given the questions surrounding the financial troubles Astana had earlier this season (remember the blank protest jerseys the team sported at the Giro?), that team is under a heightened level of scrutiny right now. Add to that the question of Alexander Vinokourov’s role on the team and the Kazakh-sponsored program might – and we have to emphasize might – face revocation prior to the 2010 season. Alberto Contador would certainly be pleased, since that would surely give him an easy way out of the contract he has with the team for next year.

Many of these questions will be addressed in the next few days, given that the ProTour Council and all of its members are hanging out at the world championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland, this week. They will also be considering changes for future years that could see an expansion of the number of licenses issued under the ProTour banner.

Stay tuned.


Email Charles Pelkey


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