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The ASO – UCI war: Why, how, and what it means

With the ASO snubbing the WorldTour, questions are swirling, and we've got all the answers about how it affects races, teams, and riders.

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Tour de France organizer ASO announced Friday that it’s pulling all of its races out of the UCI WorldTour in 2017. After more than a decade of battles between the two over the future of professional cycling, this is as close as we’ve seen to a nuclear option. If all the acronyms and political infighting have left you confused about the implications, here’s a primer.

Who gets to race the Tour?

For 2016, it will be business as usual: The 18 WorldTour teams get automatic bids, and ASO gets to pick four additional teams from the Pro Continental ranks. In 2017, the entire field will be up to ASO’s discretion. ASO’s decision to pull out of the WorldTour and run the Tour de France as part of the Europe Tour means the race will be run as Hors Classe (HC) event. HC fields cannot comprise more than 70 percent WorldTour teams. In a 22-team field, that means no more than 15 WT teams, so at least three top teams will be shut out of the 2017 Tour de France. But ASO could invite even fewer.

What is ASO’s motivation?

Simple: Power. When the ASO has total control over whom it can invite to the Tour, the teams are at its mercy. By pulling the Tour de France out of the WorldTour, ASO gets to dictate terms for the Tour and, by proxy, much of the sport of cycling.

Who’s winning right now?

ASO. Without guaranteed entry into the Tour, teams will have an even tougher time securing sponsorships. (Velon has been trying to help on that front.) The UCI tried to address teams’ financial instability by announcing earlier this month that WorldTour licenses would be good for three years, instead of just one — a move the ASO opposed. But with the Tour (along with several other major races that ASO controls) no longer part of the WorldTour, the licenses mean little, and the ASO has the upper hand.

Who’s losing?

Everyone but ASO. Teams will no longer be able to guarantee a highly valuable Tour spot to sponsors, potentially making them less stable, particularly those near the bottom of the current WorldTour. Riders suffer from unstable teams that are prone to collapse or other financial difficulties. ASO is openly mocking the UCI’s WorldTour system.

Which races will be affected?

In 2016, the ASO will promote seven of the 27 UCI WorldTour races: Critérium du Dauphiné, La Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Tour de France, and Vuelta a España. As of 2017, those races will not be included in the WorldTour. It is unclear how the ASO’s decision will affect its four Women’s WorldTour events.

Is the Tour still a UCI race?

Yes. The UCI pro teams aren’t allowed to race non-UCI events. Instead of being classified as WorldTour (WT) races, the ASO events will be designated as HC (Hors Categorie) events on the second-tier UCI Europe Tour. So the ASO events will still be run under UCI rules, but they won’t be beholden to the WorldTour structure.

Here’s the catch: only 70 percent of the teams in an HC event can be WorldTour teams. The 2015 Tour de France invited 22 teams. So, unless the Tour boosted its number of teams, only 15 WorldTour teams would be able to race in July. There are 18 WorldTour squads registered for 2016. Twenty-five teams raced Paris-Roubaix this year, so perhaps the one-day races won’t be as subject to this pressure. But does Movistar really want to race the Hell of the North?

This 70-percent rule could encourage WorldTour bottom-feeders (like Ag2r and FDJ) to downgrade to Pro Continental status for a chance at a Tour start. Further, an HC classification would allow the ASO to invite Continental teams (as well as a French national team) to its big events, but it’s hard to imagine Roubaix Lille Métropole at the Tour.

Will the WorldTour system survive?

Most likely, at least in some version. One of the main sticking points between ASO and the UCI has been the former’s desire for an “open system” that didn’t guarantee automatic Tour bids each year.

The UCI says its three-year license program, wherein a team can be kicked out for ethics violations at any time and is evaluated under sporting criteria at the end of three years, is an open system. The ASO says ‘non non!’ to that. Its definition of an open system is one in which the poorest-performing teams are booted out of the WorldTour every year, similar to how European soccer leagues operate. And, in truth, the UCI favors something more like a closed league, much like the NFL or NBA, in which teams have the stability of guaranteed spots year after year.

But ASO feels that an open system will force teams to put star riders in more races, to make sure the team doesn’t fall out the bottom of the rankings. There is a chance Friday’s announcement by ASO was simply a political maneuver to pressure the UCI to accept an open system.

What’s the European Tour? What are the calendar implications?

There are five UCI continental circuits that all sit one step below the WorldTour — Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. The UCI crowns overall winners in these circuits, but it’s not a particularly well-understood or visible honor. The European Tour has a tremendously crowded schedule with more than 600 events scheduled for 2016. The addition of a few ASO events likely won’t have much effect here.

However, ASO’s move could force the teams’ hands when it comes to the overall pro calendar. The two notable WorldTour schedule conflicts are Paris-Nice, which is up against RCS Sport’s Tirreno-Adriatico, and Critérium du Dauphiné, which overlaps with the Tour de Suisse, a race promoted by InfrontRingier Sports & Entertainment. WorldTour teams could be caught in the middle. If UCI points are a priority, they’ll want to go to Tirreno and Suisse, but that could affect their standing with ASO. And since they’re no longer guaranteed entry to the Tour, staying in ASO’s good graces will be very important (which takes us back to our first question).

What are the UCI’s options?

The UCI has little leverage. As it did in 2008, the organization could make teams choose between it and the ASO by threatening to suspend riders or teams who participate in ASO races. But that seems unlikely under current president Brian Cookson, who is less confrontational and dictatorial than his predecessor, Pat McQuaid.

But the UCI could build a coalition — Giro organizer RCS Sport is on its side, and most teams will be too — strong enough to make a difference.

When did these battles start?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …

ASO vs. UCI battles stretch back decades. But this particular issue mirrors a fight the two had in 2007 and 2008 surrounding what was then called the ProTour, which was an even more “closed” system, with more guarantees for teams. It came to a head at Paris-Nice (a race owned by ASO) in 2008, when the UCI demanded that teams boycott the race or else be handed six-month suspensions. In the end, the teams raced (though a few riders, like Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, sat out to make sure they could ride at track worlds a few weeks later), and nobody was suspended.

“Now we must choose between the firing squad and the guillotine,” said Patrick Lefevre, then the manager of QuickStep, days before the 2008 event. “If we say yes to the race, then we’re sanctioned. If we say yes to the UCI, then we don’t race the Tour. We should make them realize that we will not race in any race until this is resolved, but I can’t count on any solidarity among the teams.”

And this is still the problem. Unless the rest of the sport stands up to ASO and shouts in unison that the Tour needs teams and riders more than they need the Tour, the ASO will hold the sport’s ultimate trump card.

Are there any precedents for what happened today?

In recent cycling history, the organizers of all three grand tours battled the UCI between 2005 and 2008 over the UCI ProTour model and especially the requirement that all 20 ProTour teams be invited to every grand tour. In 2008, ASO didn’t allow the Astana team of defending champion Alberto Contador to start that year’s Tour de France. The WorldTour, and the reduction from 20 to 18 top-tier teams, grew out of the ProTour failure.

Outside of cycling, this ASO-UCI spat is beginning to look a lot like the power struggle that decimated Indy Car racing in North America in the 1990s. A number of drivers and officials, led by the head of the Indianapolis 500 — which, like the Tour de France, was the sport’s crowning jewel — broke from the governing body (CART) over disagreements about regulations, the balance of big and small teams, and the Indy 500’s importance in the calendar. (Sound familiar?)

The breakaway Indy Racing League (IRL) had a number of smaller races and the Indy 500, which most CART teams were now blocked from racing. Both sides were weakened, as CART lost access to its most important event, and IRL was forced to run the Indy 500 with a weaker and much less prestigious field. But IRL waited out the disruption, and CART eventually went bankrupt in 2003. In 2008, IRL absorbed what was left of CART, and the sport was once again run under a unified body, but had to claw back audiences that had shriveled during the years of acrimony.

The lessons for cycling: In the short term, everyone will lose. In the long term, someone will lose less than everyone else and be declared the winner. In the interim, teams, fans, and races will suffer.