Cyclingnews understands that ASO’s plan to pull its races from the 2017 WorldTour is legal under UCI rules but the move would leave the reform of professional cycling in disarray.
The teams and riders are now stuck in the middle of the power struggle. The teams are desperate for reforms that can help them find more income and stability but all the while are dependent on the Tour de France to give their sponsors visibility and return on their investment.
ASO has openly started a war with the UCI about changes to the sport a number of times. This time they have been more subtle and played by the rules, knowing that the absence of the Tour de France would totally undermine and perhaps sink the WorldTour, leaving the UCI and UCI President Brian Cookson humiliated.
Placings its WorldTour races as Hors Category on the lower-level European Tour calendar instead of the WorldTour is a simple step but would have a massive effect on the sport. ASO organise 61 days of the 148 days on the current WorldTour calendar. That is over 40 per cent of the races and includes the Tour de France, Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Fleche-Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Vuelta a Espana. ASO has even further influence thanks to organising the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman with Eddy Merckx, the Criterium International, the World Ports Classic, the Artic Race of Norway, the Tour de Yorkshire, Paris-Tours and the Tour de l’Avenir.
It seems the UCI were expecting ASO’s move after the French organiser failed to raise any questions or take a stand at the recent UCI WorldTour seminar in Barcelona. ASO first said it would pull its races from the WorldTour in June if the planned reforms went ahead and it has now followed up on its threat after the reforms were voted and approved by the UCI Professional Cycling Council and the UCI Management Committee.
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Cyclingnews understands that secret talks before the WorldTour seminar failed to convince ASO to hold fire. French Cycling Federation President and UCI Vice President David Lappartient, the President of the Belgian Cycling Federation Tom Van Damme, and Igor Makarov – the owner of the Katusha team and president of the Russian Cycling Federation, apparently sat down with ASO in Paris but failed to convince them to come back to the table.
ASO decided to make their announcement now due to the impending January 15 deadline for races applying to be part of the 2017 WorldTour and for the new three-year licences that are part of the planned reforms. The only way to avoid a show down is for the UCI to blink and extend the deadline.
Tour de France places under threat
In the mean time, ASO’s decision has the WorldTour teams worried about if they will be invited to the 2017 Tour de France and other ASO races. Under WorldTour rules, an organiser has to invite all the WorldTour teams to their races, with organisers free to choose the few wild card places remaining.
If the Tour de France becomes a HC race, ASO can only invite up to 70 per cent of its teams from the WorldTour, with the rest from the lower Professional Continental and Continental ranks. That implies a maximum of 15 WorldTour teams if 22 teams are allowed in races. However, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme has revealed that ASO is in favour of reducing the size of the peloton in races to just 20 teams for what it claims are safety reasons. That would mean only 13 WorldTour teams would have a place in the 2017 Tour de France, with other teams, including a possible French national team lining up at the start.
The UCI plans to have 18 teams in the WorldTour and has already issued licences for 2016. Several teams have signed multiple year contracts with sponsors and riders. It is unclear what would happen to the teams that are not invited to the 2017 Tour de France but they would surely struggle to survive.
ASO believes the teams will compete to secure places in its races and so create better racing but the change in race category to HC will give ASO complete control on the teams it invites to its races just as it once did. It can pick them based on sporting merit but also on loyalty or for personal reasons.
- See also: Prudhomme supports reduced eight-rider teams at Tour de France
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ASO is reported to be angry with the 11 major teams who have created the Velon business group. LottoNL-Jumbo, BMC, Cannondale, Lampre-Merida, Lotto-Belisol, Etixx-QuickStep, Orica-GreenEdge, Giant-Alpecin, Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo and Trek Factory Racing have created a binding company and are looking to defend their interests and create new income streams.
However, ASO and Velon fell out about on-bike video rights in 2015 and ASO distrusts Velon’s business strategy, preferring to defend their own interest than work together. Cyclingnews understands that ASO and other race organisers are worried about the introduction of appearance fees for WorldTour races. The idea is under discussion as part of the WorldTour reforms but would mean races compete with their chequebooks to attract the biggest riders in the sport.
The French teams such as FDJ, AG2R La Mondiale, Cofidis, Fortuneo-Vital Concept and Direct Energie are probably all certain of places in the 2017 Tour de France, while the likes of Movistar, Katusha and Astana have been careful nor to align themselves with the Velon teams and so could all expect invitations from ASO.
It is difficult to imagine ASO refusing to give Team Sky or BMC a place in the Tour de France but the other teams could, in theory, be snubbed. It is unclear if the Velon teams have promised to stick together or if they would eventually strike a deal with ASO and so turn against the UCI and other race organisers.