News feature, March 2, 2007
With ten days to go before the start of Paris-Nice, the ongoing divide between the Grand Tour organisers and the UCI may well have the most serious consequences on the road cycling reform and its calendar. One day prior to the meeting of the IPCT, the interest group of the ProTour teams, Cyclingnews' Hedwig Kröner reached ASO president Patrice Clerc in his Paris office and was able to ask him the ultimate question: Were the reports true that participation in Paris-Nice would determine the inclusion of the teams in the other ASO-organised events, such as the Tour de France?
Clerc's point of view was not one of putting pressure on the teams to stand by the Grand Tour organisers; he rather explained that the current situation of Paris-Nice could be repeating itself over and over at all 11 races that the Grand Tour managers ASO, RCS and Unipublic organise. Because of the current deadlock of negotiations with the UCI, it seemed only logical to Clerc that the world governing body of cycling would prohibit the ProTour teams from racing at their events throughout the season, thereby putting an end to the ProTour itself.
"All the 18 teams we had invited have confirmed that they wanted to participate in Paris-Nice," he explained. "Remember, in December we said that they weren't obliged to do so. Now, until two weeks ago, all the teams had their participation confirmed. But if certain teams do not want to participate in Paris-Nice anymore today, they have to explain themselves. If this is because of budget reasons, or a change of strategy of the sponsor, we could examine this, and understand. But if the reason is that they obey to a boycott of the UCI, I don't see why this would be different with regard to the other races that we organise. If they decide not to race Paris-Nice, because they've been told to boycott our competitions, then this applies to all of our races. Why one and not the other?
"Now, had a team said in the beginning that Paris-Nice was not included in their racing programme, I would have accepted that," Clerc continued. "They could have chosen their schedule and said, 'We're not coming to Paris-Nice, neither to Paris-Roubaix, but we want to do Liège-Bastogne-Liège' - fine, no problem! But as all the teams first said they were coming to Paris-Nice, and now all of a sudden they're saying they can't come because they've been prohibited to do so - let's be logical: then they will be prohibited to do so for the Tour de France as well!"
When asked how many teams recently reaffirmed that they were going to be at the start of Paris-Nice in Issy-les-Moulineaux (ASO headquarters) on March 11, Clerc replied, "Many. Those who have reiterated their presence have sent the signal that they will be there. But as for the others, that doesn't mean that they won't be there!"
Clerc's perception of the situation is of course different from the UCI's. "I think that today, there is a missing analysis of the situation," he said. "Ask yourself, where is the problem? At the end of last year, 18 teams accepted to ride in our races, and apparently they were fine with that - otherwise they wouldn't have signed up for our events.
"In the meantime, two new teams entered the ProTour. One of which we decided to invite [Astana - ed.], and one of which we didn't [Unibet.com - ed.]. And I can only note that the team we did invite seems to be satisfied with its position.
"So the problem really concerns just one team [Unibet.com -ed.]. Now, the UCI says, 'if this team doesn't participate, we have to boycott', and 'because of this decision, ASO is killing the ProTour' - but it's actually the other way round! If the UCI doesn't solve its problem with Unibet and Astana and boycotts Paris-Nice, Tireno-Adriatico, Milano-Sanremo and all the other races, it is the UCI that kills the ProTour! How can the UCI defend the ProTour, defend the licenses it sold to the teams if it prohibits those teams to ride the races? So the analysis of the situation is the following: it is not us who kill the ProTour, it's the UCI itself!"
So which scenario will the community of pro cycling may have to face this season? A split of all the 11 races organised by the Grand Tour organisers from the UCI, a new circuit? "We don't plan any split - we just haven't changed our minds. Ever since pro cycling was created, our races were in the world calendar. That's where we want to be, the world calendar. We never adhered to the ProTour. In 2005, we admitted the 20 ProTour teams because they were all ready to race and had made great financial efforts to have the best riders, the best staff etc. In 2006, we accepted these teams again because we were in the middle of discussions with the sponsors to find a solution - which we did, remember, but the UCI thrashed this agreement.
"Today, it seems to me that the IPCT doesn't have a problem with us. The UCI has a problem with Unibet - that's different."
Last week, the Clerc met with UCI president Pat McQuaid in a final bid to solve the crisis, but nothing came out of the meaning. According to Clerc, this was due to the fact that the UCI did not make them any new proposals. "I waited to hear some proposals, but there were none. All I heard was that we had to accept the ProTour as it is, and that we'd discuss afterwards. But we've been told the same thing in 2004, 2005, 2006 and we never discussed anything.
"We came to this meeting saying that cycling was in a deep crisis, and that all the parties of professional cycling had to help to come out of it. So it's always interesting to have a meeting, but we have to all sit down together and put all the problems on the table, and accept to discuss them. Discuss with all the teams, not only the ProTour teams; with all the organisers, not only the big ones; and with all the riders. Include the federations, too, who have recently expressed great concern on the future of cycling. The solution to the crisis can only be one of general consent, even if it takes one more year to achieve it, and it doesn't depend only on Mr. ASO and Mr. UCI."
As for the 'race to the sun', which starts in 10 days, Clerc never questioned the fact that it will go ahead, come what may. "We organised this race two years ago when there was snow everywhere and nobody thought that we'd have a race. We had starts, finishes, live TV coverage every day... Five years ago, the race was about to disappear because of financial problems, and we saved it in two months' time. So we intend to carry out this race, and we will see which teams will be at the start. There will always be teams, there will always be riders... We'll see who."
Still, the head of ASO refuted some observers' interpretation that his company's position was taking the teams hostage. "I don't threat anybody, I don't blackmail anyone, I don't sanction," he insisted. "All I'm saying is: live up to your responsibilities. I want to make this clear: I don't have a problem with the teams, nor with the IPCT, nor with the season and our races. But the UCI has a problem with Unibet, and to solve it, it has to kill the ProTour. That's all...
"But it's not blackmailing! If a team tells me that it doesn't want to do Paris-Nice, because it's been told that it doesn't have the right to do so, then I don't see why the situation should be different for the other races we organise. But I hope that things will change until the Tour, and I think they will. So it's not blackmail, it's only logical," he concluded, leaving the door open for hope that the 2007 road cycling season may yet bring about some real cycling headlines.
The IPCT is scheduled to meet and debate on the question of participating in Paris-Nice on Friday, March 2, in Brussels. An outcome of the meeting is expected in the afternoon.
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'
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