By Shane Stokes
The UCI has confirmed that from next season, the Grand Prix of Sochi will be elevated to ProTour status and thus becomes Russia's first-ever race at that level.
This year's event began on Saturday and runs until Tuesday, and will be the last held under the current 2.2 format.
The jump in status is a very considerable one, but has come about after lengthy talks between the UCI, the Russian Federation and the Government itself. It is the latest development in the UCI's push to both globalise the sport and to redevelop the ProTour concept.
"It will be a stage race of probably five or six days," UCI President Pat McQuaid told Cyclingnews on Saturday," adding that the race is penciled in for next May. The actual date won't be finalised until the world championships this year.
"I have mentioned before that we would hope to have races in Russia and China in 2009. Russia certainly is moving on; the UCI has been over there in the past week or so, defining a potential route and planning the event with the Russian government and the Russian Cycling Federation."
According to the Irishman, the race will be in the region of five to six days in length and held over varying terrain. It will be run in this format for the foreseeable future. "There are no initial plans to grow it, to run anything longer than that, but we will see how it develops and how the Russian government wants to develop it with us."
The original aim of the ProTour was to have the best riders and the best teams at the best races. The withdrawal of many key events by organisers ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic has necessitated a change in focus; instead of featuring all the historical flagship events from the traditional countries, the series will now seek to develop some existing events plus introduce some new ones outside Europe.
Further globalisation for ProTour v2.0
This year, the Tour Down Under became the first event to move up via this format. 2009 will see more, with the Grand Prix of Sochi and possibly other events doing the same. "The race in China could also happen next year," said McQuaid. "It is not as far advanced as Russia because there is a lot more to the bureaucratic processes there. It takes a lot longer to get things moving in China when compared to Russia. But we are looking for it [for 2009], it is hoped that it would be up and running next year as a legacy event for the Olympic Games."
While the big teams are now no longer guaranteed automatic access to events such as the Tour de France, he reiterates that the re-jigged ProTour will bring new benefits, including the possible introduction of a whole new range of team sponsors.
"This expansion is very important for the teams because they need new markets, and there are good commercial opportunities in places like Russia and so forth," he said. "The globalisation is important in the development of the sport and also in the development of new commercial markets."
The Tour Down Under paved the way as the first event in ProTour version two, but Australia had already a very strong cycling tradition. The Grand Prix of Sochi will be an important barometer in seeing how successful running such events will be in countries with a smaller current awareness of the sport. However, given that Russia has the ninth-largest population in the world with 142 million citizens, the potential benefits are considerable.