News feature, March 19, 2008
The head of the teams association is caught in the middle of the political battle on the ProTour
The conflict surrounding the ProTour, the International Cycling Union's (UCI) reform of the road cycling calendar, started in the beginning of 2004. Four years ago, when the sport's world governing body announced its plans for the Formula 1 of cycling, the French race organiser Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) already protested against the series, and it was not alone to do so. The project created polemics within all sides involved in pro cycling: race organisers, national federations, sponsors and, last but not least, the teams.
The most important representative of the ProTour teams at the moment is Frenchman Eric Boyer, Cofidis team manager and head of the Association Internationale des Groupes Cyclistes Professionnels (AIGCP), who admitted to Cyclingnews' Hedwig Kröner that his job in the teams association hasn't been easy since he took the reigns at the beginning of this year. Especially, since the power struggle between UCI and ASO escalated prior to Paris-Nice, with UCI president Pat McQuaid threatening the teams and riders with suspensions, should they take part in the race which was sanctioned by the French cycling federation (FFC).
"I'm going to lose my health over this, if it continues in this way," Boyer told Cyclingnews in Nice. "I don't want to take sides in this battle. I don't want to judge the parties involved – I want to be completely independent. I want the UCI and the organisers to understand that we [the teams] exist, and that we're not a ping pong ball between the two sides."
Boyer, a former team-mate of Greg Lemond at Team Z in the early nineties, was firm to address the main objective of the teams, and the biggest reason they did not give in to the pressure exerted by the UCI, but chose to take the start line of the event organised by ASO: "We want to race. We have our employers, the sponsors; we have employees, the riders. We exist to race, nothing else..."
But although this sounds as if it was self-evident, it is actually the bottom line of a "very complicated, and very difficult" attempt to unite all of the 17 ProTour teams (out of 20) the AIGCP represents. On one hand, team managers bought a ProTour license which was to guarantee them automatic entry to the most important races – something the Grand Tour organisers are adamant about – and on the other, they have to explain this standoff situation to their sponsors, who pay them to produce high-valued media exposure. According to their target audiences in different countries, the interests of the teams can be quite different to one another.
Prior to Paris-Nice, Boyer therefore had to pull together, despite all the problems. But he found several team managers to be undecided about which road to take. "I have to deal with too many team directors who speak two languages," the 44 year-old complained. "One with me, and one with the others. But if I ask them 'Do you want to race Paris-Nice?', and they respond 'yes', then that's what I communicate. And that wish was unanimous! When I had them on the phone, they all said they wanted to race," he insisted, referring to the decision to race Paris-Nice, which he announced late February.
But the UCI president didn't want to accept this, saying Boyer had forced the teams into that direction and alleging that the agreement had not being taken unanimously. Boyer refuted this.
"I don't manipulate anyone in order to make believe that he said 'yes', even though he actually said 'no'. I want to unite these people. But some of them tried to make the UCI believe that they didn't want to race under the conditions proposed by the organiser, so they changed their minds. Which is why we had to cast a vote to race Paris-Nice, which was decided by a majority," he explained. In a meeting of the AIGCP held outside Paris two days before the race start, fifteen teams voted in favour of racing while eight teams abstained.
Boyer also had no understanding for the involvement of the International Professional Cycling Teams (IPCT) association in the matter, which appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the week prior to Paris-Nice, to decide whether or not the teams could participate in the event. "The AIGCP negotiates the conditions under which the teams take part in competitions, and the work conditions with the UCI – on a sporting level," the Frenchman said. "And the IPCT is a commercial group, which generates a business: for example, sell merchandising products or find a vehicle sponsor. So the role of the IPCT is to find common partners for our common financial interests. But it's not up to the IPCT to decide if the teams race in Paris-Nice or not! The problem is that we [the teams] are all in the AIGCP, as well as in the IPCT – which is normal, as the two organisations have different roles. But to use the IPCT to say 'In the name of the IPCT, we'll not attend your race' – that's not within their competence at all. They don't have the right to do that."
Obviously, there was a discrepancy between those teams who did not fear the UCI's threats and those who were still reluctant to participate in the race sanctioned by the French cycling federation. "In the name of the IPCT, they took position on a sporting level, trying to make believe that this society is strong enough to make an organiser change his stance. They asked the CAS if the race conditions for Paris-Nice, proposed by the organiser, were conform to the rules – and CAS told them that it wasn't competent to answer that question, also because these things are not part of the IPCT charter. The call wasn't for them to make in the first place."
However, on Sunday, March 9, all the teams were at the start line of Paris-Nice, with no exception. McQuaid hoped until the very last minute that some teams would decide against the race, but this did not happen. The event took place as planned, under the aegis of the French federation, with the French Anti-Doping Agency AFLD being in charge of the anti-doping tests.
After creating a precedent, ASO should now be able to hold all of its races on French soil (including Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de France and Paris-Tours) under French sports law. Boyer confirmed this, as he met with representatives of the French organiser in the morning of the final stage in Nice. "We discussed the team invitations to their next races," he said. "We don't want to experience again what we had to prior to this Paris-Nice, so this meeting was necessary, and it went well." With the exception that one of the AIGCP director's board members, Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere, did not attend the meeting. It is understood that Lefevere, who is the president of the IPCT after resigning from the presidency of the AIGCP in late 2007, may be leaving the AIGCP – clearly a sign for diverging interests within the groupes sportifs.
Still, a new chapter in the conflict will be opened, as the teams will now negotiate race participation conditions not only for the next event organised by ASO – which would be Paris-Roubaix – but for all of the competitions owned by the company. "ASO will announce the team invitations to its races in one week approximately," Boyer explained. "Then, we will sign participation contracts for the whole season."
The UCI, meanwhile, insists that the races carried out in this manner are not conform with UCI rules, and that the teams have no right to enter them. "Of course we have the right to race," replied Boyer. "The French cycling federation has every right, on its territory, to make the races happen. All the threats we received – of suspensions, fines, etc. – have not had any consequences so far. Why? Because it would not be legal," he continued.
So where does this leave the UCI and its ProTour system? With the biggest races of the calendar not guaranteed to the ProTour teams anymore, the series may be doomed to disappear in its current form. "If a majority of teams abandon the ProTour license and the UCI remains with only five or six teams within the series, I don't see how the UCI is going to achieve its objectives. It will be a situation of failure. And this is going to be decided in the next few months," Boyer said.
As a team manager, he hinted that there was a possibility that Cofidis would not re-apply for a ProTour license in 2009. "Three years ago, I bought a costly license for a package of races. Today, this package is half empty – actually, more than half, it's empty to 75 percent. So today, it's not worth much at all anymore. I think that I show a lot of good will at the moment, because I don't hold the UCI accountable... In 2009, Cofidis will still be part of the peloton. My ProTour license expires at the end of this year. So if I don't want it anymore, I won't apply for it, it's as simple as that. The relations between my team and a certain number of organisers may be sufficient to participate in those events that are important to us and our sponsor," he said, simply protecting his team and its interests.
But speaking as the president of the AIGCP, things were more complicated. "Every team will have to choose whether to extend its license or not," Boyer said, unable to foresee the future. "And they will all have to decide whether to hold the UCI accountable or not. They will have to see if the ProTour license is still good value for them. But as the head of AIGCP, it's not in my competence to tell them 'do this' or 'do that'. It's their own, individual decision..."
Boyer is now the target of a disciplinary procedure the UCI has opened against him ten days ago, on the grounds that he "encouraged members of the AIGCP to contravene the UCI rules by asking them to take part in Paris-Nice when the event is not on the UCI calendar, which means that member teams of the AIGCP are not entitled to take part in the race," according to an official UCI communiqué. "What do they want to do? Put me in prison?," the Frenchman asked, unimpressed but nevertheless irritated. "Only a law court has the right to judge me, not the UCI president.
"I went to Aigle before the start of the race, and told them that I had made my decision to compete. And I stand by this decision. I told them that they will not force me to boycott this event. It's a race owned by an organiser who is vital to me. It's not possible for me to renounce to him," he concluded, reflecting the urgency of the situation for his team. And chances are many ProTour teams feel the same way.