With the demand for ProTour licences rising as the series consolidates its place in world cycling, the UCI has admitted that some applicants for 2010 membership may be passed over.
UCI President Pat McQuaid confirmed to Cyclingnews on Saturday that the governing body was planning on raising the standard and, as a result of this, there was the chance that some teams may be left disappointed.
Currently eighteen teams hold a licence, with five of those due to expire at the end of the 2009 season. All have reapplied, as have two new teams plus one squad currently competing at Professional Continental level. That totals 21, meaning that if the number of ProTour members remains at eighteen, three teams will have to drop to the second tier.
"This is a situation that we are studying," McQuaid told Cyclingnews over the weekend. "What we are doing is raising the bar for ProTour teams. In doing so, one or two teams which are asking for licences to be renewed or to be granted for the first time will not meet the criteria. The rules state we can have up to 20 teams but, in continuing to raise the bar, it may mean that one or two teams may not get a licence."
AG2R La Mondiale and Team Milram are nearing the end of four-year licences, while a three-year term for Lampre-N.G.C is also coming to an end. Cofidis and Bbox Bouygues Telecom were granted one-year licences for 2009 and must also reapply if they wish to form part of the ProTour next season.
The demand for places has been increased due to the declarations that the British Team Sky project and the new US Team RadioShack also intend to apply for the sport's top tier. Skil Shimano earned a discretionary invitation to this year's Tour de France as a Pro Continental team, and wants to move up a level next year.
This marks a major step forward for the ProTour: on July 15th 2008 the project looked dead in the water when the teams announced that they would all leave the series. However, a peace deal worked out later that summer saw the UCI's series regain its credibility.
Under the terms of the arrangement hammered out with ASO's owners Editions Philippe Amaury, the results of ProTour races would be combined with those of the Historical monuments in order to calculate a new ranking for individuals and teams. This was named the UCI World Calendar, and the individual, teams and nations classifications are currently headed by Alberto Contador, his Astana team and Spain.
The UCI announced at the time that 2009 and 2010 would see teams' participation governed by the agreement already signed by them and ASO prior to the 2008 Tour start.
But, from 2011 onwards, the classifications of the UCI World Calendar would confer the automatic right to participate in the Tour de France and other Historic Races, with either 17 teams of nine riders or 18 teams of eight taking part. That would represent a peloton of either 153 or 144 riders, and would thus still enable ASO and the other Grand Tour organizers to select several wildcard teams.
The pressure is on
Currently, a loose arrangement along those lines is in place. Most teams with ProTour licences have been granted places in the Grand Tours plus the other races run by the organisers, making it worthwhile to have one. But with all eighteen teams wanting to be part of the series next year and three more keen to join up, the stakes have been raised.
This has led to some anxiety amongst the teams concerned. During the Tour de France, Irish rider Nicolas Roche wrote in his Irish Independent diary that the AG2R La Mondiale team was nervous about what might happen and was therefore under pressure to chase points in order to increase its chances of getting a licence.
Cyclingnews sought confirmation from the team that this was the case. Its management did not comment directly on this, stating simply, "considering our past results, our seriousness and our international approach to cycling, we wish to take part in the most important competitions and to belong to international cycling. We therefore wish obtain a ProTour license for 2010."
McQuaid said that some teams wanted to lobby for an increase in the number of licences to 20, thus avoiding the possibility of demotions. Jonathan Vaughters, president of the teams' association AIGCP (Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels) said that he had not discussed that specific matter with other teams, but felt that a general raising of standards would probably be of benefit.
"We have been talking to the UCI about this," he stated on Saturday. "The AIGCP represents all of the teams, so for the majority of them, a higher standard to enter the ProTour is a good thing. This isn't just a higher performance standard, but a higher organization, financial, image, and ethics standard.
"The sport of cycling continues to grow, so the standards have to be raised in proportion to this growth. Higher image and ethical standards can only benefit the whole of the group."
"As regards having 20 licences, that could be better for ProTour teams, but would mean fewer opportunities for Pro Conti teams. It's a hard situation, for sure."
Growth in series
The creation of the Sky and RadioShack teams represents two new sponsors coming into the sport, one from the UK and one from the US. While the latter country already has ProTour teams in Garmin Slipstream and Columbia HTC, the UK has never applied before for a licence. McQuaid is enthusiastic about the fact that two new outfits are seeking to be involved in cycling.
"It is a very good sign for the health of the sport, and also a good sign for the globalisation of cycling," he said. "When you look at a team like Columbia, it has an individual like Bob Stapleton who brings a new philosophy into the team and into the sport. David Brailsford would also bring a certain philosophy and instill that in his riders. That is all healthy, and something that is good for the future of cycling."
The demand for team licences is on the rise, and there is also new interest from race organisers. Earlier this year the Tour Down Under made its debut on the ProTour calendar. In June, the UCI announced that it had set aside September 10th and 12th 2010 for new events in Canada. One will be held in Montreal and the second in Quebec City, making these the first races at this level to be held in North America.
This could increase to three in 2011 as the Tour of California organisers want to run their race as part of the ProTour series.
The UCI had previously indicated that races would also be held in China and in Russia, and while there has been little news of late, it appears these might yet materialise at some point. "They are still under discussion," confirmed McQuaid. "There is no definite news on either of them as to when they are going to take place…I doubt it will be next year, but it won't be much longer than that."
What's clear is that the general thrust is towards an evolution and growth of the ProTour. That's encouraging news for a series that appeared to have completely run out of steam just over a year ago.
However, with increased demand comes the reality that some big name teams may find themselves essentially demoted in 2010. Will the sponsors remain if that occurs? Time will answer that question, but what's certain is that there will be a considerable amount of nervousness in the weeks ahead.
Who could lose out?
If the five outgoing ProTour teams all reapply for a ProTour licence and Team Sky, Team RadioShack and Skil Shimano do likewise, the UCI must either refuse three out of those eight teams or else increase the number of licences from 18.
As a result of this, the team managers of the squads concerned will be under pressure to ensure that they get the green light.
The directeurs, sponsors and riders of AG2R La Mondiale, Team Milram, Lampre-N.G.C, Cofidis and Bbox Bouygues Telecom will do what they can over the months ahead to maximise their chances; aside from making sure the correct finances are in place, they must also seek to avoid ethical problems and to show, from a sporting point of view, that they are competitive with the other ProTour teams.
The sporting aspect will not be the sole deliberation but, as regards that issue, some of those teams may be nervous. In the latest world rankings Lampre, AG2R La Mondiale, Cofidis, Team Milram and BBox Bouygues Telecom are 15th, 16th, 19th, 20th and 21st out of the 32 teams holding points.
Milram and BBox Bouygues Telecom have 114 and 94 points respectively; Astana and Team Saxo Bank, who are first and second overall in the standings, have 1082 and 863. Skil Shimano hasn't ridden as many ProTour events as the teams with a licence and is 23rd overall with 32 points.
Posting a strong campaign for the remainder of the season will be important for these teams, as they need to show that they can mix it with the others.
Of those who have licences for next year, it is worth considering the situation of Euskaltel-Euskadi. Should recent doping positives by Iñigo Landaluze and Mikel Astarloza put the team's future in jeopardy, there could be one more open slot in the ProTour.