What's Cool In Road Cycling

The ProTour: Lift-Off Is Imminent!

Two days – and counnnnting. The ProTour blasts off Saturday at Paris-Nice, into the great unknown. We checked out the UCI website for clues, and talked to an impassioned Jens Voigt and others to see if anyone really knows what’s going on, and where it’s headed.

When news of the ProTour first broke, I think that most of us had the same attitude as some Israeli settlers after hearing Sharon declare a Gaza withdrawal – it ain’t gonna happen… Even if it does sound familiar, ProTour will go ahead, at least for 2005 starting on Sunday with Paris–Nice, and the top teams gunning for first ProTour blood.

Since the ProTour has figured so heavily in most news reports concerning our sport, it seemed like a good idea to lay out the basics of the new format, at least as far as we understand them, and splice in reactions we’ve been getting from racers.

Jens Voigt was particularly vocal in his thoughts, so read on to see if you agree…

First The Basics
I won’t go into a ton of detail explaining the ProTour idea, but according to the UCI website “the creation of the UCI ProTour has 3 objectives”:

1. To make cycling more attractive to the public, especially by improving participation levels at key events of the season.
2. Increase the interest that it generates with investors, by offering teams, organisers, broadcasters and their main partners, guarantees as regards the profit that they will make from their investment. For that, the big races must benefit from as much media coverage as possible.
3. Contribute to the development of cycling on all continents (outside Europe), by providing it with an environment in which it can flourish without suffering from the competition of UCI ProTour races.”

Now, call me crazy, but that all sounds like the marketing and PR guys got ahold of the UCI’s HTML content management systems and powerpointed their way to authority. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is very important to keep sports running like a business, and make sure all the athletes, staff, and sponsors are getting the recompense they need to make a viable living. But do we really want to promote the broadest change to the cycling establishment since I don’t know when, do we really want to highlight it in its capital terms?

According to the UCI’s website, the ProTour is to increase public interest, investor interest and international interest. Am I the only one wondering about the racers’ interest? What about the race organizers’ interest? Unless you are one of the 20 teams or 27 races favoured with entrance into the ProTour, there doesn’t seem to be a whole hell of a lot to get excited about.

Who’s Excited!
Of course, I simply can’t wait for the Paris-Nice to see the season really get kicking. And in spite of the gloom and doom reports we had at the end of last year, with the semi-randomness of going from 20 to 19 and back to 20 teams, and the inability for the grand tours and the UCI to come to any long-term agreement (2005 seems okay, but it’s a wait-and-see situation beyond this year), I am turning into one of those spectators that is expecting great things from this year’s set up.

I mean, won’t it be fantastic to see Discovery Channel and T-Mobile going head to head in the Giro? I’m excited to see what the new Liquigas and Lampre formations do in the classics and tours. And I’m totally creaming my pants in anticipation of the more top riders battling in the big Tours. But will the new ProTour set up enhance these epic rivalries or will it just be strait-jacketing the sport?

What the Pros say…ProTour On My Mind
Since the ProTour has loomed large for several months now, Pez has been able to get the skinny from several pros about it, and how they think the ProTour will or will not change their lives. When we spoke with Klaus-Peter Thaler back in November, he gave a characteristically reserved, but optimistic opinion:

“For a long time cycling was not as professionally organised as many other sports, but recently cycling has introduced many changes. … There are so many races available and vying for riders, that it does make sense to introduce a fixed “tour” that includes all of the most important races. Of course this can be tough and there will be some “casualties” along the way. … But the success and value of the ProTour is something that can only be determined in a few years. “

That is a well-reasoned snap-shot of the ProTour, and captures both the advantages and disadvantages of what the ProTour looks like it will turn into. The races and racers that make it in the ProTour will be well paid and well known. But there seems to be a gap in the reasoning of how will the smaller races and teams survive as the pieces of the pie become bigger but fewer. I guess that’s the question everyone will be asking for at least this first season. And everyone will naturally have their own answers. But nothing prepared me for the response I got from Jens Voigt when I asked him about the ProTour:

VOIGT’S VISION
PEZ: Looking at your preparation for the coming year, how has the ProTour changed, or not changed your training; all the changes the ProTour will be introducing, has that changed your preparation at all for this year? And do you think it is a good idea?

JV: Whoa, that’s a huge question, that will take like five hours to answer!

PEZ: Oh, is it, sorry. You can give me an abridged version.

JV: Well, as far as the training goes, I always have to perform and be prepared, so the training is okay, and progresses as usual. As far as the team goes, last year we were 24 rides, and now we are 27 riders, that is only an increase of 3, so that’s not too much change either. My schedule has changed a little because some races are in the Pro Tour and others aren’t, so if the team wants you to be in top shape for a certain race, maybe you’ll have to train a little differently, time your peak differently.

But the ProTour as a whole, I have to say that I really don’t like it. Maybe I don’t really know all of the details, but from what I can see, I don’t like it much. Because, first of all, it looks like the young people are not going to benefit from the new regulations. At the moment, we have the under-23 category, and then the Elites. Naturally, the under-23 try to get an elite contract as soon as possible, but with the Pro Tour we can only race certain category races, and the under-23 can only race a certain category of races, and we never meet or race together. That means the under-23 will never get a chance to race against the elites; and that will make it really tough for them to get noticed since they will never be racing in front of the elite sport directors. How can they ever get a chance to show themselves, and to get the early experience of racing in the elites.

And before, the rules were that if you had an elite team, you had to support a youth, under-23 program. But since the ProTour is going to be so expensive just for the elites, the teams appealed to the Pro Tour organizers, and the organizers agreed that a team wouldn’t be required to field a whole other youth team, but would just have to do some undefined something for the youth of cycling. Well, that could be just putting up 1000Ђ for some small race for 12 year olds. But that is hardly the way to build the sport.

And another thing, this is just my personal opinion, but it looks like we are here at point b and we want to get to point z, but we don’t know what to do with the other 23 letters, or whatever. So everything is working now in a trial and error way, but that makes it really hard for the riders and the teams, because we are told one month contracts will have to be one way, and so everyone spends a month preparing contracts, or whatever, in that manner. But then they decide it needs to be done some other way; in the mean time we’ve spent all this time and money on getting it to be the way they first said they wanted it.

They seem to see the aim, see the goal, but it looks to me like they have no clue, or at least no set plan on how they are going to get there. And the problem is, this is also just my personal opinion, that Hein Verbruggen our boss; he is stepping down from power at the end of next year. And he wants everything in place and running as a Pro Tour, so that he is in the history books as the saviour of modern cycling. He wants everything now, and too fast. The teams are complaining about how expensive it is, and how it might compromise long held schedules, and races which are important but not included in the ProTour. And he responds by saying, “look, it is simple, either you are in or you are out”. And nobody likes that. Then the teams have to pay for their licenses, but nobody knows where that money is going. What are they doing with all that money. Will we ever get it back, or what do we get for the money. They talk about TV rights, and that we will get money from TV rights and things. But you know, this isn’t world cup soccer or anything; I don’t know that there is much money in the TV rights for cycling. I think they over-estimate the public interest in cycling. I mean, I love it, for me it’s the best sport in the world, but not everybody thinks like that. For Germany, it’s soccer. Most of Europe is more interested in soccer or something like that. And cycling is basically a European sport. North America and Australia have strong cycling programs, but they also have other “national” sports which draw much more attention. But cycling has almost always been a European dominated sport, and so I don’t know that there will be very much international cache or broad general interest starting up for the sport.

PEZ: And I guess it’s not like in soccer where everyone wants to buy a David Beckaham jersey, but you don’t see too many non-cyclists standing in line to buy the Gerolsteiner team kit.

JV: Yeah, you have that a little, but not to any great extent. But it’s not like people know me, for instance, like they know Zinedine Zidan, or whoever. It’s just not the same thing. Cycling is more traditional. I don’t know, maybe I’m totally wrong about the whole thing, but that’s how I see it. Maybe the ProTour will be great, but it’s just as likely to be dead in the water after a year or two. I hope I’m wrong, and that it all works out perfectly, but we’ll just have to see. For me, it’s okay, and I shouldn’t complain, because I am in it. I don’t have anything to worry about. But for the kids who are up and coming, they are going to have a tougher time. As it is, the ProTour is on a four year basis, so you can buy a license for one, two, three or four years. So imagine, theoretically, all the first teams buy a license for the full four years, and in four years there is no changing of teams or anything, you change riders of course, but no other team can come in. What if you have a willing sponsor like General Motors, for example. But they have to wait. Or they have to buy out the license of another team, and you can imagine that will cost like three times what the license would normally cost.

ProTour Pez’d
How many teams? 20

How many races? 27

What are the terms? Teams officially obliged to follow sporting, legal, financial and ethical strictures established by the UCI.

How are they ranked? An individual, a team and a country each receive rankings and points after each ProTour race. The national classification will be awarded on the basis of the total points gained by the first 5 riders of each nationality in the individual classification.

Who doesn’t get points? non-UCI pro teams and riders who place in the points positions will not be awarded any points.

So don’t tell me you’re not excited! They all laughed at the World Cup back in the 80s, and look how well that turned out, so well that we may be a little sorry it’s not around anymore. But change is inevitable, and it might just be that Mr. Verbruggen is thinking of more than just his Presidential Legacy here. At least he doesn’t have Lewinsky or Iraq on his record, after all.

Don’t just trust us! Look it up. The UCI site gives the basics – you fill in the blanks:

www.UCI.ch

You can read K-P Thaler’s full ProTour comments here.


Olivia Kaferly is a former racer living in Berlin, who still rides whenever she can. By day she works in publishing, and speaks several languages, including “working conversational” German, and enough French to avoid being insulted in Paris. Her linguistic skills are a huge bonus to PEZ Readers, allowing us to tap into the world of Euro-pros. You can reach her at [email protected]

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