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Teams balk at UCI’s proposed Tour de France qualifying rules

A key meeting this Wednesday in Madrid could create a rift between teams and cycling's governing body.

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Teams are raising the alarm ahead of an ambitious makeover of Tour de France qualifying rules set to be introduced as part of a larger UCI reform targeted for 2020.

Speaking ahead of a planned sit-down this week in Madrid between cycling’s major stakeholders, team representatives are insisting the UCI’s proposed reforms are missing the big picture. Instead of tweaking the rules of the game, teams want a complete makeover of cycling’s economic model.

Since his election last year, UCI president David Lappartient has been quietly pushing an ambitious reform agenda that could be ratified by the end of this year and rolled out by 2020. If approved, the reform would shake up the World Tour and reduce the number of top teams from 18 to 15. Among other actions, the reorganization would create a qualifying system that would open the door for more second-tier teams to compete in major races such as the Tour and other grand tours.

Teams are pushing back, however, saying the reforms stop short of what’s really needed.

Speaking to VeloNews, AIGCP vice president Richard Plugge said teams want a broader discussion about economics and revenues before getting bogged down on technical rules and regulations.

“It is the wrong way around. We should first look at the business model,” Plugge said. “You cannot talk about rules when many teams are in danger of not existing next year. First, we should have our economics in order.”

VeloNews reached out to the UCI for comment and did not immediately hear back.

Plugge’s comments come just as the UCI is holding a major meeting this week in Spain where representatives from teams, riders and race organizers will hear an update on the cycling federation’s sweeping reform.

Discussions of change began inside the UCI headquarters last year following the election of Lappartient. The UCI hopes to have the plan approved within the next few months, but teams officials say they were not given a detailed presentation of the wide-ranging proposal until a meeting held after the conclusion of the 2018 Giro d’Italia. The UCI’s urgent push for dramatic change is catching the teams off-guard, team representatives said.

“Why make a plan when the big stakeholders are not involved in it?” Plugge said. “The UCI is there to facilitate everyone in cycling. Why not bundle the knowledge of the teams and organizers and talk with the most important guys all together before making rules about the sport?”

Plugge said the UCI proposal stops well short of taking on larger issues of an economic model that would include bundling TV rights or creating new revenue streams to help stabilize teams. Instead, Plugge said the reform focuses too much on new rules and regulations, rather than addressing more pressing problems.

Plugge said the teams, working under the AIGCP, as well as race organizers, have insisted on having a larger voice in the discussion of the future of the sport.

“In these discussions, we were not invited to talk to the UCI. That is our big frustration,” Plugge said. “All of the teams are very united to create more parity and a sustainable future for the pro ranks. The organizers are on the same page. But we do not have a seat at the table.”

The proposed UCI reforms could change the way Pro Continental teams gain access to grand tours. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

The teams are not opposed to everything the UCI is proposing. Outlined in a wide-ranging document that the UCI has presented to teams, the cycling governing body is pressing to make important changes that teams support.

For example, the UCI is pushing forward with its fight against technological cheating as well as a perceived threat of unregulated betting. The UCI vows to enhance video monitoring of races to implement rules and infractions. Teams support these measures.

Also outlined are ambitious plans on the anti-doping front, including a request to WADA to ban Tramadol and other painkillers, more stringent medical checks, mandatory rest days for low cortisone levels and a push to require provisionary suspensions in the wake of adverse analytical findings and anti-doping violations. Teams back those measures as well.

The document also spells out the creation of a sport-wide centralized commercial digital platform under the UCI where teams and race organizers could earn additional revenue and profit. That effort could push up against the Velon project and many of the commercial digital platforms that individual teams and races have already developed.

Teams are worried about the fine details of the plan, however. The reform calls for the WorldTour to shrink from 18 teams to 15. It outlines a qualification system based on a season-long points rankings that would replace the current WorldTour ranking. Licenses would be distributed based on each team’s rankings. The UCI has also proposed a relegation/promotion system similar to that of European soccer leagues, in which the lowest-ranked teams in the sport’s highest tier are relegated to a lower tier.

Pro Continental teams would be reorganized as “Pro Teams” that would race on a parallel calendar. The top five teams could earn guaranteed grand tour berths over a 12-month qualifying period. Race organizers would still have two “wild card” invitations for the major races. That’s certainly good news for smaller teams trying to elbow onto a grand tour start list.

Details remain opaque and more of the fine print is expected to be revealed Wednesday in Madrid.

The UCI’s reform push comes as teams were already bristling at rules imposed this season that reduced team rosters from nine to eight for grand tours and from eight to seven for other races. Though the impact on racing dynamics is debatable, teams said it forced them to squeeze their rosters and reduce the numbers of riders.

Speaking to VeloNews during the Vuelta a España, Sky principal Dave Brailsford said his team is likely to reduce its roster for 2019 and questioned the logic behind the rule changes.

“People’s solution seems to be to reduce the sport, the number of competitors, reduce the number of race days, caps — it’s all about reduction,” Brailsford said. “I just don’t buy it. My view would be let’s work together to get the smaller teams more money and grow toward the bigger teams. Make the sport bigger — the reductionist view does not sit happily with me.”

The tug-of-war between the teams, the UCI and race organizers is nothing new. Many of the same questions that Plugge and Brailsford have raised have been debated for decades. The UCI, under three previous presidents from Hein Verbruggen to Pat McQuaid to Brian Cookson, were unable to challenge the economic status quo.

Race organizers foot most of the bills to run the events but gain nearly all of the financial benefits. Without stadiums to sell tickets, organizers derive income from TV rights, sponsorships, and fees charged to host cities. Most races don’t make much money, with the exception of the ASO-owned Tour de France. Estimates vary, but profits are said to between $40 million to $100 million annually.

Teams argue they are the ones bringing money to the table. They pay the salaries of the riders as well as underwrite the infrastructure to support the athletes, from team buses to staffers to travel expenses and equipment. Teams say they collectively fork out up to $400 million annually but have little voice in the current power structure.

Previous efforts to try to organize teams around a singular and independent league have not gained much footing. This latest round of reform, however, is galvanizing the teams to take a stronger stand to press for cooperative change.

“The reform should be equal between the stakeholders, not just affecting one stakeholder in favor of another stakeholder,” said Trek-Segafredo general manager Luca Guercilena. “I believe there is a certain unbalance. If I see all the costs the teams have to carry, to see which real power we have, it is really unbalanced.”

The UCI document argues that the reforms will make teams more stable and enhance the financial underpinnings of the sport. The reform document also hints that the larger economic questions will be addressed in the future.

Plugge said he is hopeful the UCI will listen to ideas teams and race organizers offered during the past several weeks leading up to Wednesday’s meeting.

“We gave them the ideas. We said there are good things in there, and there are a lot of things to improve,” Plugge said. “Hopefully the UCI will listen Wednesday. The teams are very united on this. They cannot push something to our side of the table and just expect us to jump when they say jump.”

If the UCI and the teams cannot find some common ground this week, it could set the stage for another ugly power struggle within cycling’s ranks. Plugge said the teams are willing to cooperate and hope it doesn’t come to a standoff.

“We will see how the meeting will go,” Plugge said. “We have to trust the UCI that we can work together. We have to give them a chance to talk to us and present these plans. And then we can make conclusions afterward.”

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