By Kirsten Robbins in San Luis Obispo
ProTour team directors met before the start of stage four of the Tour of California to discuss the ongoing developments surrounding the status of the Paris-Nice stage race, an important event on the international road cycling calendar that was part of the 'ProTour'.
The owners of the race, ASO, changed the status of the race to become a "free" event on the national calendar just weeks before it was scheduled to take place, effectively removing it from the ProTour. But the ProTour teams were then told by the world governing body of cycling, the UCI, that they are not entitled to participate under those circumstances.
The ProTour license they bought from the UCI may now be worthless if they cannot race in some of the world's most prestigious races - the Grand Tour organisers (ASO, RCS and Unipublic) own a total of 11 events, among which the monuments of Milano-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours and Giro di Lombardia, not to speak of the Tour de France.
Some of the ProTour teams in North America for the Tour of California are trying to keep up with the rapidly changing developments. "It will take a week for us to figure out what is happening over in Europe right now," Stefano Zanatta, directeur sportif of the Italian team Liquigas said. "This just happened and having a new complication in cycling is a very difficult situation. Cycling already has many problems and now we are in a moment of difficulty with the UCI and ASO."
It is too early to predict whether or not a resolution is in sight or if the teams will be forced to take action into their own hands. Many of the team directors are in accordance with one another and no matter what side is taken, all agreed that the fighting between the two organizations has to be resolved soon. CSC’s director sportif Bjarne Riis shared Zanatta's opinion: "It is difficult to say what is going to happen right now because this situation just came about yesterday. It is very ridiculous that they have tried so hard to solve these problems but they have still not come to a conclusion and this is not okay. It is a very serious situation right now but we will have to wait."
Part of the problem the teams are facing is the scheduling and planning of the team’s race calendar. Rabobank’s Erik Breukink found out just moments earlier that the UCI has reminded ProTour teams that they are not permitted to start a national event and was unhappy with the organizations’ power showcase. "I heard this just a minute ago and now we are not allowed to ride in the Paris-Nice," Breukink said. "Now the UCI is battling with the Grand Tours and this is not good for us. We planned our season around the ProTour events and we want to do all these races for the ProTour. If they are now saying we can't ride what can we do, how are we supposed to prepare our season?"
Breukink added, "Now it is only a battle and they need to solve something because ASO, the organizer of the Tour de France are showing their power and the UCI is trying to show their power. For cycling this is a bad battle. Most of the teams agree that the ProTour teams need to stick together."
Paris-Nice is one of the most historic events organized by the ASO in France. Tens of thousands of fans are awaiting the ProTour teams to pass through on route to Nice and in fact, the race's parcours had been recently modified to make it more suitable for the Belgian star, Quick Step rider Tom Boonen.
T-Mobile’s director sportif Brian Holm elaborated on his disappointment not being able to bring a team to the prestigious event. "I’ve just heard about this in the morning and I think from the point of view of the riders it’s a pity if we couldn’t do it and we were planning to race there," Holm said.
"Personally I hope we can work this out and I hope we can do this race because it is a great race and I’ve always liked it. I just can’t figure out how the UCI can’t work it out with the ProTour and ASO. If the ProTour teams don’t show up for the people who love cycling and the French people who stand out on the side of the roads for that race it is a real pity for them."
Stefano Zanatta felt the ASO should try to respect the rules that the UCI has placed on ProTour events, even though the French organisation never officially counted its races among the new circuit. "The race was officially UCI, the riders and teams are official of the UCI so ASO needs to respect the rules of being a ProTour event," Zanatta said.
The battles rose further when ASO decided in December to accept only 18 ProTour teams to its races, omitting Astana and Unibet.com. Although Astana finally received a wildcard invitation, Unibet.com was turned away because of a restriction in FRance that prevents the advertising of gambling services (Unibet is a betting operation).
"ASO can’t take whatever teams they want when the organization of the UCI plus being a ProTour event is already in place. So, they must take all twenty teams."
During the press conference at the end of stage four, world champion Paolo Bettini’s Quick Step director Wilfried Peeters also commented on the subject. "The UCI has asked the teams not to start and I hate this mess," he said. "These people have to understand that they are playing with our future of cycling. I am sad that they are playing with our rights. We have already been struggling over a year against doping and now the UCI is against the Grand Tours and for what? We are all in business together and the name of this business is cycling. We have to stay together, whether we want to or not, because these people are not understanding and I am ashamed of them."
Peeters finished with a strong point on behalf of the ProTour team directors. "You have to understand that you can’t make a movie without actors. We [the team directors] have the actors and we are the ones paying them so if they want to make a film then they need us and they need to find a solution or we will make a solution ourselves. We have a meeting next Friday in Belgium and we are all going to take (that) position."