Former UCI President Hein Verbruggen has criticised the governing body for lacking a long-term strategy as it sets about implementing reforms of the WorldTour system, and suggested that current incumbent Brian Cookson has been swayed in turn by the demands of the teams and Tour de France organiser ASO.
In a lengthy letter to the UCI board, written last month and signed “Hein Verbruggen, UCI Honorary President for life,” the Dutchman said that many of the economic issues facing men’s professional cycling now are the same as when the UCI first introduced the WorldTour (then ProTour) in the final year of his presidency in 2005.
“Looking at the current, rather chaotic situation, one has to conclude [professional road cycling] is NOT ‘succeeding,’” Verbruggen wrote. “Today, it is not only the teams that remain financially fragile, with their sustainability threatened, but also riders’ employment is equally fragile. Less still is there a [WorldTour] identity and narrative - and team sponsors risk seeing their participation rights reduced.”
Discussions about the planned 2017 reforms of the UCI calendar began under Pat McQuaid’s presidency and have continued since Cookson took over in 2013.
The UCI’s plans appeared to have hit a roadblock last December when ASO pledged to pull its races from the WorldTour calendar in 2017, but the two organisations reached an agreement in June that would eventually reduce the WorldTour from 18 to 16 teams, and introduce a framework that allowed for the promotion and relegation of teams.
Verbruggen criticised the UCI for what he saw as switching from supporting the position of the Velon group of teams to backing ASO’s viewpoint. He cited the influence of European Cycling Union president David Lappartient’s letter to Cookson earlier this year in which he outlined concerns at the impasse between ASO and the UCI.
“The UCI should not ‘team up’ with anybody. The UCI should be the governing body that teams up with ALL parties. The UCI has to be above the parties and come up with proposals that are the rational result of its long-term vision and its chosen strategy to realize its objectives,” Verbruggen wrote.
“Politics should have zero influence!! To be very open and candid: many people believe that Mr. Cookson switched from supporting VELON to supporting ASO as a result of the letter Mr. Lappartient wrote and in which he complained about the bad UCI-ASO relationship. If there is truth in that, how can you expect parties to support drastic reform proposals?”
In August, the UCI announced that it had added ten events to the WorldTour calendar for 2017, including the Tour of Qatar, Abu Dhabi Tour and Tour of California, expanding the series to 37 races and increasing the amount of overlap between WorldTour events on the calendar.
“If adding races is not the result of a well-defined long term strategy (and that is the impression one gets if it is not decided in close cooperation with the teams) then it is unfeasible and even inappropriate. A decision like this cannot be taken without the consensus of the teams,” Verbruggen wrote.
As well as opposing the proposed reduction of the number of WorldTour teams – “Can anybody explain to me what good it will bring to the development of our sport to cut the number of WorldTour-teams from 18 to 17?” – Verbruggen called for the implantation of a salary cap to alleviate the growing disparity between WorldTour teams.
“In the sport of cycling it is undesirable that there is too much (budget) discrepancy between the teams that compete in the same race or competition. This leads inevitably to too much control by the top team(s) on the races and – consequently - to dull races (see Tour 2016),” Verbruggen wrote.
Verbruggen’s letter comes ahead of the UCI’s annual congress in Doha during next week’s World Championships, where the proposed reform of the WorldTour structure is sure to be on the agenda.
“I can quite understand why your current ‘reform’ plans do not appear to have much support, neither from your major stakeholders (with perhaps one exception) nor from other cycling experts (including the media),” Verbruggen wrote. “Moreover, logic would suggest that, for the time being, you don’t make decisions that are widely contested.”
In the opening paragraph of his letter, meanwhile, Verbruggen complained that the UCI had not paid the legal fees he had incurred during the Cycling Independent Reform Commission’s inquiry into the sport and his presidency.
Verbruggen had sought 40,000 Swiss Francs from the UCI towards his costs, and while Brian Cookson had initially consented to pay a small portion of that fee, he told the Guardian last December that any agreement was “null and void” because of “evidence that he [Verbruggen] was involving himself in UCI politics.”
“Several of you have informed me that they have insisted that I should be paid and I know that this was even officially decided by the Executive Committee,” Verbruggen wrote in his letter to the UCI board. “However, the problem seems to be that whatever is said or decided by the Executive and the Board, or even by the President, the final decision is taken by [UCI director general] Mr. [Martin] Gibbs – and his decision is that there will be no payment.”
The UCI declined to comment on the matter.
Verbruggen received damages of 12,000 Swiss Francs in a separate legal action against journalist Paul Kimmage in May of this year. Last year, Verbruggen declared himself “proud” of the cases he had taken against Kimmage, Floyd Landis and others, and successfully resisted Cookson’s attempts to strip him of his title of honorary president of the UCI.
“He may hold the position but it is a meaningless title,” Cookson said in December. “It’s not in my gift to remove it. He doesn’t receive UCI papers, and he doesn’t have access to UCI papers. He has no influence on the UCI and he will continue not to do so as long as I remain UCI president.”