BERLIN, Germany (VN) — Track cycling will get a major facelift in 2021.
Under a major reorganization of racing on the boards, the UCI is making over the World Cup series, moving the world championships to October, and linking up with broadcaster Eurosport to create a new made-for-TV racing series that will debut in a velodrome near you.
Not everyone is happy about the changes, especially some among the national federations who say the new structure will dilute the selection process for the Olympics. Yet, there could be some long-term upside for track cycling.
Eurosport has signed on for a multi-million-dollar eight-year deal that the broadcaster promises is a long-term bet on track cycling and could offer some significant prize money on a new dubbed “World League.”
“Track cycling is a key asset for the Olympic program,” said UCI President David Lappartient at the UCI world championships in Berlin. “In the four years between Olympics, track cycling is not at the level that we expect. The discipline needs to grow beyond the Olympic program.”
Here’s what you need to know about the reforms:
The World Cup gets new look
The World Cup series will be replaced by what will be called the “Nations Cup.” Three events with all the major disciplines will be held each season, with racing from March to September, under the flags of national federations. The three legs will be used as qualifying events for world championships and the Olympics.
World Championships to October
Worlds will move from late February to October. Track worlds has been all over the calendar during its history, but the UCI decided to move it back to the fall. Naysayers were quick to point out that if the worlds are held after the Olympics the event will lose much of its prestige. The UCI countered that a fall date for the worlds will open the door for road racing endurance riders to also participate in the track worlds. The new date will be unveiled in the 2021 worlds will be scheduled for October in Turkmenistan (which drew a question about human rights during Sunday’s press conference).
Creation of “World League”
And finally but most importantly is the introduction of a UCI “World League” that will include six events, open to any city with a major track facility, with racing from November to February. The UCI partnered with Eurosport to back the initiative in an eight-year deal signed Sunday.
The concept is to create a made-for-TV racing package that can be broadcast live in a window of about two hours. Participation will be limited to 36 riders — with equal representation between men and women — in just four events: keirin, individual sprint, elimination and scratch races.
Lappartient said the UCI wants to help Eurosport promote track cycling to maintain interest between the Olympic cycles.
As Lappartient was quick to point out, track racing is the cornerstone of cycling’s Olympic reach. Half of all of cycling’s 24 medals come from the track.
The challenges facing track
One problem for track cycling, at least at the World Cup level, as it largely lies moribund between Olympic cycles. It’s rare to see all the top teams and riders race more than a handful of World Cup dates. Things ramp up every four years as teams and riders use the World Cups to gain qualifying points. And once every four years, everyone shows up to the world championships, like this week in Berlin, for an Olympic dress rehearsal.
In the subsequent three years, however, the sport lies largely fallow in the fields. That’s what the UCI and Eurosport hope to change.
“This is completely new,” Lappartient said. “This will bring track cycling to the highest level, and bring more attention to track cycling, and help close the gap between the Olympic cycles.”
Not everyone was happy. National federations had plenty of unanswered questions about new Olympic qualifying rules, while trade teams were worried if they were going to be locked out of both series. Lappartient said the “door is still open” for trade teams to participate in the Nations Cup.
Lappartient tried to assuage concerns, and insisted that the final details have yet to be worked out.
Involvement of Eurosport
Andrew Georgiou, president of Eurosport, said the broadcaster plans to build out the World League as one of its main vehicles to promote track cycling between the Olympic cycles.
Georgiou said the company has committed eight years to the project, and insisted it will bring its full production package, both in live TV production as well as its online and digital platforms, to promote the series.
Will it work? It remains to be seen.
The World League concept will try to condense what’s typically a three-to-five-day event into a format that’s dynamic, engaging and presented live within a two-hour window. That obviously means that several disciplines, including all of the team events, are left out.
“We believe we can create an audience and exposure for this event,” Georgiou said. “We want to create a unique live experience inside the velodrome, and this will help us bridge the gap between Tokyo and Paris.”
Initially, there was talk of having the “World League” series to be used as qualifying for the Olympics. Federations pushed back against that, and it appears that the UCI will cede on that point, meaning only the Nations Cup — which is the rebranded and reduced World Cup series — will count toward Olympic qualifying.
“The ‘World League’ is another concept,” Lappartient said. “The Nations Cup will follow the more traditional way to qualify for the worlds and Olympics.”
There’s a carrot at the end of the stick, at least for the cyclists. While the final details of where and when the events will be held remain to be finalized, Lappartient and Eurosport officials said that if the program is a success there could be important prize money on offer for racers.
Under the current system, many track racers live on stipends from national federations or limited sponsors. Top keirin and six-day riders might make decent money, but few Olympic-level track cyclists break into six figures.
One rider who was intrigued by some of the broader strokes for the plan was Team GB racing legend Chris Hoy. He said a series that could offer full-time track cyclists more chances to make a proper salary on the velodrome is worth exploring.
“I know of a two-time Olympic gold medalist who makes $25,000 a year,” Hoy said. “I don’t know the details yet, but if it’s something that will let them race on the track and help athletes earn a decent living, it’s worth exploring.”
Officials said they will start with covering expenses like travel budgets and housing, and ideally offer a substantial purse.
Officials did not reveal details of the package, but it sounds like Eurosport will produce and promote the new series, with payouts to the UCI and riders in the backend if there are above-costs profits.
“We don’t have the exact amounts right now, but it will be huge compared to what we have today,” Lappartient said. “We have huge interest in track cycling, but many of the riders are paid by the army, their national teams, or by a lottery. We want to move to a system so they can earn money with their performances.”
There was now-standard grumbling from some that the UCI did much of deal-making behind close doors, without input from major stakeholders.
But much like he’s done so far in road racing, Lappartient is once again proving he is a UCI president who is determined to shake things up.
Track racing will see a major reboot following the Tokyo Games. It’s a big bet, but with many saying that the current system doesn’t work, the pay off could be worth the risk for a sport that deserves to be in the headlines more than once every four years.