Teams react to UCI's boycott request
By Greg Johnson
Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) has reiterated its position following a threat from the International Cycling Union (UCI) to not recognise its first event of 2008, Paris-Nice, with the major French race organiser declaring that the March 9-16 event will go ahead as planned. The sport's world governing body called on all professional teams to boycott this year's event, after ASO announced it would operate the race under the French Cycling Federation's governance, instead of the UCI, and "under the exclusive jurisdiction of French law."
ASO reacted to the UCI's release yesterday with a brief statement that simply reiterated that Paris-Nice would go ahead as planned. "Despite the hostile positions taken by the UCI president, Paris-Nice will take place as planned, and will be organised according to the technical rules of the French Cycling Federation, in application of the French law," said the release.
The UCI's call for teams to boycott the race if ASO continues down the French federation route has been met with a cautious response from team managers. International Association of Professional Cycling Teams (AIGCP) president Eric Boyer, also the Cofidis squad's team manager, said he would meet with UCI president to inform him of the teams' intentions once a unanimous decision had been made.
"For the moment I'm consulting with all of the teams so that we can unanimously define which direction we are going to take," Boyer told AFP. "After that I will be asking for a meeting with [UCI President] Pat McQuaid to inform him of our intentions.
"Our decision will determine how we will race (other events) the rest of the season," added Boyer, referring to events run by Grand Tour organisers ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic.
Boyer's comments indicate that the power – in the form of exposure and prestige of their combined event portfolio which includes the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España – held by the Grand Tour organisers would be a factor in the teams' decision. Should the teams decide to enter the Paris-Nice, it will force the UCI's hand with the governing body's only options to sanction the teams or back down.
Early indications from the team managers in the world's top teams indicate that the UCI might yet again be backed into a corner in the continuing UCI Vs. Grand Tour organisers war of words. While many team managers are unhappy that they're stuck in the centre of world cycling's power battle once more, the few that have spoken out since yesterday's announcement have indicated it's likely the teams will again side with ASO, as it did last year.
"The quarrel between ASO and UCI only makes cycling weaker," Silence-Lotto's Marc Sergeant told Wielrensite.nl. "The team is definitely not thinking of not starting. Immediately, I do not see a reason for the team to boycott Paris-Nice. We want a strong cycling scene, but our sponsors are not expecting us to put pressure on the kettle."
Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefevere voiced a similar opinion to fellow Belgian team manager Sergeant. "How am I supposed to explain this to my sponsors?" Lefevere said. "Paris-Nice is a race that is televised in our country. What is going to happen now? Is that going to happen this year also? Will Quick Step be part of the peloton?
"That is a street that has no end, but I am the tired of all the screaming in the desert," he added. "I am supporting the race. But who is going to be sure of a start later on in the Tour [de France]?"
Rabobank spokesperson Luc Eisenga told DPA the Dutch team was hoping for a long-term solution to the on-going war "the teams are not directly involved [in the dispute] but are those who suffer from it." Gerolsteiner's Hans-Michael Holczer told the press agency he felt the latest battle would act as a "rehearsal for the Tour [de France]" later this year and that he hoped all parties could sit down and come to a long-term agreement.
The current dispute over which teams should take part in Paris-Nice is almost exactly the same as the one that happened in 2007. Then, ASO refused to invite Unibet.com – a ProTour team under UCI rules. ASO claimed that under French gambling laws, it was illegal for a team sponsored by an online gambling concern to advertise itself in France. Unibet said it would change its name and jersey for French races, but had no luck with ASO and was excluded from all its races, starting with Paris-Nice.
The UCI demanded that ASO invite Unibet, threatening all teams with sanctions should they participate. The crisis was finally averted a few days before the start of Paris-Nice, with the UCI backing down and allowing ASO to invite the teams it wanted. Unibet was left with a worthless ProTour licence and folded at the end of the year and has since all but collapsed, with team manager Jacques Hanegraaf now running a smaller Professional Continental team called Cycle Collstrop with the remnants of Unibet's infrastructure.