Cyclingnews Exclusive: The fight between ASO, UCI and teams for the future of pro cycling

Details of the power struggle sparked by reforms to the sport

The fight for the control of professional cycling's political and governmental landscape has intensified with the UCI and the Amaury Sport Organisation (organisers of the Tour de France) at loggerheads over the governing body's latest set of WorldTour reforms.

The stakes are high, with ASO determined not to relinquish the power and influence on the sport they have built up over the years, while the UCI and the teams in the WorldTour are looking to push through reforms and extend the power and authority that they already have.

Last Friday a leaked letter from ASO to the UCI's Professional Cycling Council (PCC) and the UCI Management Committee, indicated that the ASO was threatening remove their races from the 2016 WorldTour calendar if the reforms, in their current format, are approved.

This threat came after an important presentation of the planned WorldTour reforms on June 10 in Geneva, where those appointed to draw up the reform for 2017-2020 revealed their updated vision for the future of men's professional cycling. The PCC approved the reform document and its proposals in a vote during a meeting on June 16 but only with a majority. Cyclingnews understands that six members of the PCC voted in favour, two abstained and three voted against. Among those that apparently voted against the reforms were ASO's Christian Prudhomme, and David Lappartient, the vice-president of the UCI. Cyclingnews reached out to ASO but have yet to receive an official response. David Lappartient agreed to be interviewed but has yet to speak to Cyclingnews. 

The figures relating to the vote have been reported differently in other news outlets but Cyclingnews has confirmed the 6:3:2 results via two independent sources. The score would have been 7:3:2 had Team Sky's Bernhard Eisel been present and voted. The Austrian is a UCI riders' representative but was racing the Tour de Suisse when the vote took place and despite submitting written support for the reforms he was not eligible to vote due to his non-attendance.

Cyclingnews has obtained both the letter sent by Yann Le Moenner, the Marketing, Strategy and Business Development Director at A.S.O, to the PPC and UCI, and the 15-page WorldTour reform proposal document. We have spoken to several sources close to the reform process.

While reports on Friday indicated that ASO would consider removing events from the WorldTour if progress was not made with the reforms, Cyclingnews understands that the current situation is far more complex with the UCI's stance currently being undermined from elements high up within their own Management Committee. These can be traced to a potential presidential rival for Brian Cookson, extensive round of reforms that would see the number WorldTour events increased and the scrapping of the relegation and promotion scheme that was originally lobbied for. It is this latter element that has in part angered ASO but as one source told Cyclingnews the real battle is over the control and power that runs directly through races, sponsorship and essentially the other main revenue streams within the sport.

Who is leading the reform?

To understand ASO's recent strong-arm tactics one must realise what is at stake. Primarily, the argument centres around how the sport moves forward. Almost every stakeholder within cycling realises that in order for cycling to professionalize both commercially and governmentally and for sponsorship to become sustainable, reform is needed. What can’t be agreed upon is who leads the reform and the pace at which changes should be brought about.

At present the UCI, under Cookson's leadership are building a framework for the foundation of change, with the first proposals set to be rolled out in 2017. It's not all about Cookson though. There are 17 stakeholders with a voice and among them are the UCI, the riders in the form of their CPA representative body, the teams organisation AIGCP (which represents all of the teams, including the teams 11 that are part of the Velon organisation), and race organisers that include RCS Sport (organisers of the Giro d'Italia, Milan San-Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico and Il Lombardia), and those of the Tour de Suisse, Flanders Classics, the GP Quebec and Montreal and ASO.

This group, with their collective voice named as The Reform of Professional Cycling Stakeholders' Working Group has roots going to back several years and has spent the last two seasons in consultation that has brought the latest reform document to where it is today.

What’s in the reform?

The early incarnations of the reform included talk of a relegation system, teams placed in tiers and less WorldTour races than are in the current format. The latest version – which would be in effect from 2017 to 2020, had the backing of the majority of stakeholders, teams and riders, the PCC and the leadership UCI.

Like the early versions, the latest 15-page document lays out four objectives; restoring credibility, globalisation, Lisibilite - which effectively means given the race calendar a narrative, and strengthening the pyramid, which is described as "recognising the UCI WorldTour as part of a larger and interdependent system." The document adds that "for 2020 and beyond discussions would begin in 2017."

However other details are radically different and the changes have angered ASO.

According to the UCI reform document seen by Cyclingnews, the key elements and changes are:

- An enlarged UCI WorldTour, bringing in proven high quality events across the world – though upper limit of race days set at approximately 170 to allow UCI WorldTour teams also to compete outside of the UWT (UCI WorldTour)

– No compulsory removal or reduction in length to events currently in the UWT

– Development of strong narratives rather than removal of overlaps as the way to promote events and the season. Overlaps are tolerated with a maximum of 2 simultaneous UCI WorldTour events

– Current participation rules maintained for existing UWT events

– New participation rules for new UWT events to encourage growth and globalization.

When it comes to growing the WorldTour, the reforms indicate that they would not look to shorten the format of any existing WorldTour races, therefore putting to bed the rumour of cutting the GIro d'Italia and or the Vuelta a Espana from three weeks to two – an element that has been misreported for several months, much to the frustration of those leading the stakeholder discussions.

There had been a huge amount of early resistance to the first set of reforms when they were presented at last year's WorldTour Seminar in Montreux (Switzerland). However under the latest versions the reforms would look to bring in new races to the WorldTour level (those currently at HC level would be eligible to apply). This aspect came about after lengthy and productive consultation between the stakeholders with Cyclingnews informed by one key source that Brian Cookson was a leader in the discussion. One key aspect in the new version of the reform would mean that teams would not have to mandatorily race in new WorldTour events.

When it comes to overlapping races, as the sport currently has with Paris Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico and the Dauphine and the Tour de Suisse, the reforms would allow for a maximum of two races to overlap – meaning that the existing race calendar clashes would be accepted. New WorldTour races, the document reads, would be selected by the PCC and the UCI Management Committee.

When it comes to races below WorldTour level the reform looks to consolidate the existing structure by creating a 'ChallengeTour' [ed. a working title] that would encompass HC and Class 1 races. Again these reforms would not come into place until 2017 at the earliest.

As well as reforms to the race calendar the document also includes reforms for the teams. Firstly, teams at WorldTour would have between 23 and 25 riders, with each squad also obliged to have a development team of 8-12 athletes.

The second tier of teams - currently known as Professional Continental teams, would have between 16 to 25 riders, however unlike in the WorldTour ranks, there would be no limit to the number of Second Tier teams.

The Continental squads, as they are currently now, would form the third tier and would be part of the UCI Biological Passport programme as and when they participated in races involving first and second tier teams.

Why are Amaury opposed the reforms?

Resistance from Amaury's representatives at the negotiation table has been a consistent stumbling block, one source told Cyclingnews, while a second told the website that on a sporting level the race organisational side of ASO has been more helpful than the body's more strategic kingpins. ASO organise several WorldTour level events, for a total of 68 days of racing per season, and are without question the most powerful single stakeholder in the sport with the Dauphiné, Paris-Roubaix, a share of the Vuelta a Espana and ultimately the Tour de France in their flush deck.

Another source, who has intimate knowledge of the recent developments told Cyclingnews that the block between ASO and the UCI comes down to "control and [Amaury] wanting to keep as much of it as possible."

The teams' argument, which has been reported several times in the past, is that they don't wish to touch ASO's existing rights but that they simply want to the opportunity to collaborate with other organisers and to set up their own revenue streams.

The relegation dilemma

The issue over team relegation, according to the ASO's letter to the PPC appears to be central to their current standpoint and resistance to the new reforms. In their letter they point the relegation system as a key factor in Cookson and the UCI's first draft of reforms and they question why it has been removed from the version presented in Geneva.

Cyclingnews understand that the relegation idea was scrapped because it would only increase instability within cycling. The current climate, with only 17 WorldTour teams instead of the desired 18, illustrates that the current sponsorship model within cycling is strained. A relegation system, one might argue, would breed uncertainly and as one source said, "would lend itself to the past days of doping" with teams fighting for ranking points, their place in the WorldTour and ultimately survival.

There are two further areas that ASO find fault within from the reforms. Firstly, that WorldTour teams can be granted renewable three-year licences and that WorldTour teams are not obliged to take part in the 'newly added' WorldTour events.

ASO fears that giving a team the option to opt out of some new WorldTour races could allow them to pick and chose their race programme and lead teams to obtain significant appearance fees from wealthy races, while deciding to miss poorer races or races hostile to their plans. This could strengthen the position of the teams against ASO.

The letter also accuses the UCI of a lack of transparency, saying, "it became clear that this document had been discussed between the UCI and a part of the teams even before being submitted to some organizers among which ASO, UCI showing on that occasion an unacceptable lack of transparency as it was the case when it left one of the organizers in charge of the WorldTour's annual gala evening in Abu Dhabi."

This is perhaps a slight on RCS Sport's apparent willingness to work with the UCI and team stakeholders and move the reforms forward.

The letter then indirectly attacks, but without mentioning, the Velon teams.

"The pressure has kept increasing these last weeks and we have found that some teams had decided to pool formally or informally within an elite 'restricted club' to guide the reform in a direction that is favourable to them and only them."

The letter then accuses the UCI of straying from their role as an intermediary or guide, saying that they have been "caught off-side" and "would be close to endorsing a mercantile system, extraneous to sporting merit, in which the right to participate would be bought by the teams, the one of engaging groups also bought by organizers and the hopes of the transfer between the elite and the inferior levels, the cycling pool, definitively ruined."

The letter concludes by calling on the members of the PCC to reject the reform document and makes it clear ASO will "refuse to participate in such a system to which it will not associate its events."

It does offer an olive branch by calling for the working group to resume talks, insisting that only "keeping the status quo would not endangering (sic) even more seriously our discipline (the sport of cycling) and its sustainability."

After ASO's leaked letter appeared, several reports followed, some of which insinuated that the teams wanted to establish a closed system, in which WorldTour licences were guaranteed. However the WorldTour reform document illustrates that the stakeholders have advocated for a more open system for teams, enabling new teams to enter the top tier of the sport.

It is understood that during the stakeholders process it was agreed that this system should tie in with the economical model and security of teams rather than annual risk of relegation which would place added pressure on the sporting results.

Mr President

And what of Brian Cookson and his position? He came in on a mandate of trying to restore credibility to cycling and to improve globalization and the commercial prospects of the sport. There have been some wins in both the men's and women's fields but there have been blows too, most notably over the Astana and Roman Kreuziger Biological Passport cases in which Cookson's office has taken the brunt of the hits.

That said, the consensus from several stakeholders is that Cookson is "doing the right thing" by backing the new reforms – as well as their initial objectives - and "standing up to ASO" as another put it.

That may be so but the leak of Friday’s letter has the hallmarks of dissention within the ranks at the UCI Management Committee. The letter was sent to PCC president David Lappartient and one source told Cyclingnews that the Frenchman is making all the signs of running against Cookson.

It has been reported that the Management Committee pushed back against Cookson and the proposed reforms. However Cyclingnews understands that this wasn't the case. The reforms were apparently generally approved with the proviso that some areas needed further discussion and explanation. Cyclingnews understands that Lapparteint and UCI Management Committee members Mike Plant of the USA and Tom Van Damme of Belgium have been asked to elaborate further details and study the consequences and impact of the reforms.

The next step

ASO have argued that current status quo must be kept in place, as they try to defend their interests, although they have at least pleaded that the main parties should visit the negotiation table once more for another round of talks.

The teams meanwhile appear to have been surprised by both the leaked ASO letter and the nature of the some of the reporting around it.

They and Cookson must seek to consolidate their arguments for reforms, while also rooting out any dissention within the management committee before having another round of talks with ASO.

At present there are no victories in this debate and power struggle. Whatever consensus was gained in the last two years the reforms have reached a critical point.

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