‘ProTour is beyond the point of no return’
By Andrew Hood
UCI president Hein Verbruggen had a message to renegade bike races threatening to derail his baby: The ProTour will start in 2005 whether you like it or not.
Of course, Verbruggen hasn’t risen so high in international sport without being diplomatic.
While the daggers still seem to be drawn in the power struggle between the UCI and cycling’s grand tours, Verbruggen was all smiles when he tried to gloss over differences threatening to derail major changes to cycling’s international calendar.
“The ProTour is beyond the point of no return,” Verbruggen told a packed press conference Saturday evening. “There will be a ProTour. We have support of the management board, support of professional teams and sponsors.”
Not mentioned in the phalanx of support were organizers of cycling’s major three-week races. Last week, the companies behind the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España wrote a letter to the UCI threatening to boycott the ProTour if key issues weren’t discussed.
Heated discussions were held in behind-closed-door sessions in Verona this week as the UCI met with race officials to hammer out a compromise. Verbruggen said the major breakdowns occurred over “misunderstandings.”
In a lengthy discourse, Verbruggen said such issues as television rights (the races retain the rights as under the current system), assurances of race integrity (the Vuelta and Giro have been threatened to be reduced to two weeks) and the anti-doping code were more or less agreed.
Verbruggen shot down a suggestion that the proposed 20 teams in the ProTour could ascend and be relegated out of the top tier, much like as in European soccer leagues. He said the assurance that a sponsor will be guaranteed a place in the most important races is paramount to the ProTour concept.
“The ProTour will help the organizers; the best teams in the best races,” he said.
Verbruggen indicated that officials from the Vuelta and the Giro are close to signing off on the ProTour format, which includes eliminating the existing World Cup series.
Left unmentioned was the powerful Amaury Sports Organization, which produces such races as Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice and Liege-Bastogne-Liege as well as the Tour de France. Negotiations are scheduled to continue Monday.
The press conference marked Verbruggen’s most public defense of his controversial ProTour plan. Under his vision, 20 trade teams will be awarded four-year licenses and be guaranteed starts in all the season’s major races.
One sticking point for the race organizers was the mandated automatic bids for the ProTour teams, which just this week was expanded from the proposed 18 to 20. The remaining three teams are expected to be named next week.
With 20 teams pre-selected, that gives the big tours only two or three spots to invite popular national teams to their respective races.
Many are hopeful the negotiations can find a compromise to make all sides happy. No one wants to see cycling divided into two series, much like what happened with crippling effect to the Indy Car racing series in the 1990s.
“We have a project that has wide support among the teams and sponsors,” concluded Verbruggen, who added a sinister note. “Anyone that wishes to undermine this project just because of semantic issues takes a heavy responsibility.”