By Tim Maloney, European Editor in Paris
On a wintry Saturday afternoon on the eve of the debut of the UCI's ProTour at Paris-Nice, UCI President Hein Verbruggen spoke in a press conference about perhaps his biggest and most significant reform of professional cycling yet. "This ProTour debut is an important occasion", explained Verbruggen, as he first delved into an introduction of how the UCI was unified and reformed over the past 20 years, mostly under the impetus of Verbruggen himself. Like him or not, Hein Verbruggen has brought cycling into the 21st century with a series of reforms since he came on the scene in the mid '80's that have made cycling one of the best managed sports worldwide from a governing body standpoint.
With the preliminaries over, the UCI's power point illustrated the new UCI ProTour Council, which will take the place of the Professional Cycling Council (CCP). The main elements of the new PTC will be to provide for the self-government of pro cycling, strongly anchor pro cycling with the UCI and to ensure that commercial interests don't take over the sports, which likely referred to attempts by Swiss sports agent Marc Biver to purchase the Vuelta a España several years ago.
For the period of 2005-8, the UCI ProTour revealed a medium term plan, which consists of four key elements. Firstly, the ProTour is seeking to remove the "volatility" or instability from cycling by providing teams and their sponsors with the same races for their four year licenses. Secondly, the UCI believes that the increased team budgets will create a positive situation for the riders as it will (hopefully) provide bigger salaries and better insurance for the riders, with a long-term commitment on behalf of the team. The new ProTour structure offers total financial transparency and teams and sponsors will be guaranteed to participate in a series of recognisable competitions throughout the year.
The UCI also believes that the ProTour's medium term plan will benefit cycling organisers in particular by guaranteeing that the top teams will participate in their events, and benefit cycling in general with a general level of excellence in ProTour events. When Verbruggen was asked about the situation between the UCI and the major race organisers ASO (Tour de France etc), RCS (Giro d'Italia etc.) and Unipublic (Vuelta d'Espana), he calmly explained that "well it's really a problem of marketing at this point", going on to explain that currently, one company that organises races (ASO) is doing well from the income gained from the TV revenues, speculating that the other two (RCS & Unipublic) perhaps do not. Verbruggen believes that the UCI can work with the race organisers to manage the TV rights negotiation and everyone will benefit. Unfortunately, the key race organisers are not in agreement.
At the meeting traditionally organised with the key race teams and the Tour de France organisation the Friday before Paris-Nice, a surprise on the agenda for the teams, who are generally in favour of the ProTour, was that ASO chief Patrice Clerc had organised a presentation by himself and the bosses of the Vuelta and Giro to explain why they were not in favour of the ProTour as it currently stands. Some of the teams were not happy with this unexpected turn of events, but Clerc and his fellow Grand Tour organisers are standing firm against the existing ProTour structure. "We wanted to remind the teams of our categoric refusal to change our status as owners of our events under the ProTour", Clerc told L'Equipe after the meeting.
Clerc also outlined a new bone of contention with the UCI that has certainly increased the chill between the sides. Clerc stated that "We have also informed the UCI that we are not happy to be excluded from the ProTour council...so at this point in time, regarding international cycling, that the three Grand Tours, and four of the five monuments of the sport (Milano-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia) and eleven other major races don't have a voice anymore. We can find a compromise, but what's possible when you are excluded?"
Verbruggen replied in the ProTour press conference to Clerc's comments by saying, "It seems bizarre to me that we would launch the ProTour and even include ASO, RCS and Unipublic (in the ProTour Council) if they didn't take out a ProTour license like the other twelve race organisers who did so."
Although his tone was mild and bland throughout his discourse today, Verbruggen fired another shot across the Grand Tour organisers bow when he elaborated his reasoning as to why they should give up some of their TV rights. "I think (Grand Tour organisers) have a moral obligation to address here...the Tour organisers, they say the Tour is so big because of (founder) Henri Desgranges, but I say that in fact, the Tour is big because of riders like Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Indurain and Armstrong. And because of this, the organisers have this responsibility to help cycling, to feed the grass roots to keep the sport growing."
Although the polemic appears to be getting sharper, nonetheless the riders of the Paris-Nice peloton are ready to race in the chilly climate of the first-ever ProTour race tomorrow in Paris.
Cyclingnews' recent coverage of the ProTour-Grand Tours split
October 4, 2008 - New ASO chief to maintain values
September 26, 2008 - UCI declares peace, appoints new VP
August 30, 2008 - UCI re-signs five ProTour races
August 22, 2008 - ProTour: Bouncing back or lame duck?
August 19, 2008 - Stapleton analyses 'world calendar'
August 18, 2008 - Feedback on 'world calendar'
August 18, 2008 - UCI announces 'world calendar'