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ProTour In Peril: Organizers Vs The UCI

The Grand Tour organizers have thrown it up to the UCI in a big way by stating they’ll decide who gets invited to their races – not the UCI. In December, the French ASO, Italian RCS, and Spanish UniPublic released a statement announcing their new selection criteria for the races they control – which happen to be the biggest and best on the calendar. Here’s our take on the pros & cons of this ‘new’ system…

It seems the gully that separates the UCI from the Grand Tour organizers is eroding into a canyon. Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milano-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Flиche Wallonne, Liиge-Bastogne-Liиge, Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, Vuelta a Espaсa, Paris-Tours and Giro di Lombardia will no longer be the exclusive battle grounds of “ProTour” teams, at least according to a statement released the the guys who own and control those monumental events. The organizers claim the Pro Tour is restrictive, and they want to move towards a more open sport – ie: they refuse to be told who to invite to their races and will make up their own guest lists thank you very much.

Just like the ongoing struggle to make the ProTour work for teams, organizers, sponsors and the governing bodies, this current volley is not likely the ‘last word’, bit for what it’s worth, here’s how it could impact racing in 2007.

Who’s Invited?
From 2007 onwards, Pro Tour Teams will no longer be obliged to participate in the above events. Some teams will automatically qualify, however, the conditions for automatic qualification are still under discussion. The organizers have announced that the criteria will be mainly based on results from the two years preceding the start of each event. Wild Cards will be awarded at least three months before the start, and by 2008 the number of teams allowed to participate in these events will be reduced from 22 in 2007 (the transition year) to 20. Possibly the most interesting part of their press release however, is that “the organizer reserves the right to refuse the participation of any rider or team employee, whose presence could damage the image of the event.”

That’s all very well, but what does it all mean? What are the implications for you and I sitting in front of the big-screen or cheering from the side of the road? Well let’s a look at some of the key points and see if we can figure this out for ourselves…

1. Participation is Optional
So the Pro Tour teams are no longer obliged to do the races they don’t want to. When it comes to race day this probably won’t change very much. The teams that aren’t adapted to the Classics never really played an important role in the outcome of the race anyway, and vise-versa the big Classic teams weren’t on the podium of a major Tour even if they did figure prominently on the flatter or sprint stages. So hopefully we’ll get better racing at each event as more teams will be motivated to do well.

The changes implicated by this rule however have far more lasting effects on the sport of cycling as a whole. Why? Because it pretty much blows the entire principle of the Pro-Tour to smithereens. The Pro Tour was supposed to guarantee sponsors a presence in the all the big events, and the obvious media coverage this implies. The sponsors of Pro-Tour teams may start having second thoughts about investing in the sport of cycling if they are no longer guaranteed to be flashing across TVs worldwide in all of the world’s biggest races.

However, some sponsors might actually be encouraged to join the sport as there is now a hope of the non-Pro-Tour team they have invested in, riding the races that they were otherwise almost guaranteed to be excluded from. All this obviously begs the question of how points will be awarded for the Pro-Tour, how the Team and Rider Rankings will be decided and who will get to dress up in white as leader of the Pro-Tour. The UCI will have their say in the matter no doubt, and I’m sure you can expect a response from them fairly soon.

2. Automatic Qualification & Wild Cards
Organizers Invite Their Buddies
The organizers will automatically qualify teams according to results in said race from the previous two years, and then award wild cards as they see fit. All sounds pretty logical so far… But judging results is somewhat subjective. What will the organizers look at when considering results from the previous two years? Will they look at a single exceptional rider in a team full of mediocre athletes, or will they look at the team performance as a whole? Will they look at riders who have since left the team or at the results of newly signed riders? It could be argued that selecting teams on their previous results is a polite way of telling the UCI, “we’ll pick who the heck we want”… hmmm.

Does all this really open up the sport, or is it just another excuse for organizers to invite ill-suited “home” teams? We all know the ASO has been criticized in the past for turning down deserving teams and offering entry to numerous smaller French teams for the Tour de France, seemingly on the simple criteria of nationality.

A More Dynamic Race?
It must be said however that there could be a definite advantage to the new selection criteria. With some smaller teams potentially having access to the bigger races, we might see some surprise riders flash onto the scene and grab the general public’s attention once again. Teams like Sella-Italia often have some magical riders show through in the big events (like Rujano in the ‘05 Giro).

Smaller teams (even those from outside France!) might actually get easier access to the Tour in the next few years. These teams might actually progress hugely given the extra motivation for their riders of potentially riding the Tour, Giro, Vuelta, Paris Roubaix etc. Smaller teams often animate a race as they feel they have something to prove.

Let’s also point out that if more non-Pro-Tour teams were able to participate in the biggest races, it could do wonders for developing cycling nations. More US, Australian, South African, Ukrainian, Kazak etc teams could show up on the start line of Paris Roubaix or the Giro d’Italia. This would not only spice-up the race, but could dynamite cycling interest in those countries, and potentially bring in many more sponsors from the far corners of the world.

3. Fewer Teams.
The organizers wish to reduce the number of teams participating in their events.
For 2007, a year they refer to as a transition year, they will allow 22 teams to participate. But that number will decrease to 20 as of 2008. What does this really mean? Well not much frankly. Until the introduction of the Pro-Tour at the end of 2004, the number of teams participating in the Tour de France, Giro and Vuelta and other events, varied from year to year. I’ll bet you never actually thought about it once the race got started. The advantage is a slightly less crazy race (emphasis on the world “slightly”) as less riders means less vehicles, less hotels and so on – which benefits the teams themselves. The disadvantage is quite simply that some of the riders you wanted to see strut their stuff, might have to join you on the couch with a cold beer.

4. Vigilantes
The organizers of each event reserve the right to refuse the participation of any rider or team employee, whose presence could damage the image of the event.
This, in my opinion, is the big one! Something clearly has to be done to clean up the image of the sport, but the implications of this statement are huge.

If race organizers can choose which riders from a team can or cannot take part in their race, then we may as well do away with the entire legal procedure in place to protect and sanction riders for doping infringements – which is what they are really talking abut anyway. What’s the use of having a legal procedure in place if once riders are legally cleared to race, they still don’t know where and when they will actually be allowed to burn rubber. If a rider has been found guilty and has served his time, he has the right to get on with his life and do his job, according to the current rules.

If a rider has been falsely accused, the repercussions are incredible, even if he is legally cleared. A cleared rider sadly always remains under suspicion. Allowing individuals to further decide whether he can or can’t race for whatever reason they see fit, is rubbing salt into the wound and is highly damaging to the rider and the sponsors he represents.

Ultimately what will this mean to race fans (you know – the largest interested party left out of the decision making process)? Well… you might not get to see Ullrich, Basso and Hamilton duke it out in the high mountains and give us that show of force and superhuman ability we all love to watch.

It could also mean that some riders sign contracts to effectively sit on their butts all season and be prevented from racing. Isn’t that the job of WADA, UCI, CAS etc? If organizers start playing policeman, next thing you know, gardeners will be designing bike frames, the Italians will stop drinking coffee, the French will start eating British food and I’ll be riding the Tour. Hey, maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all.

But seriously, there is a legal procedure in place to take control of these issues. Imagine if a few years ago the organizers had prevented a certain rider from going for his 6th or 7th Tour victory simply because a newspaper had decided to try and drag his name through the mud.

Will the organizers of these great and historic races be able to prevent rider or team employees from taking part in an event? You’ll have to keep watching the soap opera that our sport has become in order to find out. 2007 should be a very interesting season no matter what!

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