Ever since the end of the UCI World Cup in 2005, and the evolution of the ProTour/WorldTour, the sport has struggled to find its identity with a calendar overrun with races and concentrated largely in old world Europe. The UCI is seeking to reform and modernise the WorldTour, but faces an uphill battle with deeply entrenched race organisers and sentimental attachments to historical races that often crowd out newcomers.
Bicycle racing may be a sweepingly beautiful sport, filled with rich characters and gripping battles, but it is a business that desperately needs new customers. There has been talk of globalising the sport, but it is a project that requires the UCI to both lead the way as well as follow the trends in cycling fandom.
There may be plenty of cash in the Middle East, funding solid races like the Tours of Qatar, Oman, Dubai and the upcoming World Championships, but the spectator base is thin and the cycling culture still growing. There are other races across the globe that are riper for inclusion in the WorldTour, and Cyclingnews has picked five that should be considered.
The Tour of California has lasted for a full decade, holding its own while other races have come and gone. Centered in the most cycling-mad regions of the world, the race is a no-brainer for the sport's top tier. The race has quality courses, a big fan base, and strong fields. The only things holding it back are its position on the calendar, which conflicts with the Giro d'Italia, the rules surrounding inclusion of the teams, and the race organisation itself.
Moving from February to May gave the Tour of California new life, but it is also stunting its growth. The race has plenty to offer in sporting terms - majestic views, sweeping vistas, punishing climbs - but its value has been a double-edged sword. By clashing with the Giro d'Italia and aligning itself with the ASO, the race has sold itself short as political pawn while failing to capitalise fully on the opportunities the industry in the state has to offer. While some riders take it seriously, many view it as a post-Classics holiday in luxury hotels.
The race has avoided stepping up due to the issues surrounding the inclusion of the Continental teams, who bring in important income thanks to the practically required "sponsor activation". But that issue appears to be close to a resolution with new rules being proposed to allow organisers more leeway for invitations.
With the ASO taking over as technical directors, its inclusion in the WorldTour surely not be far behind, but Tour of California needs to find a place on the calendar where it doesn't conflict with a Grand Tour if it wants to truly find its place in the top tier.
The UK has been one of the fastest growing cycling markets in the world, thanks in part to the performance of Team GB in the Olympics in London, and to Tour de France stages and the Yorkshire Grand Depart. Strong representation from Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish on the men's side in addition to Lizzie Armitstead's stellar world title as well as a solid bike culture make the UK a perfect spot for a WorldTour event.
While the ASO-backed Tour de Yorkshire has more political pull, the Tour of Britain's history, length, and position on the calendar makes more sense for the WorldTour.
If it is to be included in the WorldTour, the Tour of Britain will need to reposition itself somewhat on the calendar. Currently conflicting with the Canadian WorldTour races, it is a suitable alternative preparation for the World Championships to the Vuelta, but it would be better positioned mid-August, where it could come into its own. This year's race was filled with incredibly tough and memorable stages, with close fought racing that produced a worthy winner in Edvald Boasson Hagen.
With the possible death of the USA Pro Challenge, the mid-August slot would be wide open, and paired with the Arctic Race of Norway, it could be a good base of preparation for Worlds and a race worth fighting for in its own right.
Although there are competing races of equal quality to Strade Bianche on the calendar in March, the sport needs more romance and more excitement. Nothing says spectacle like riders hurtling down the ivory roads of Tuscany.
The newest of RCS Sport's events has produced some of the most exciting racing of the early season calendar in recent years, and given some time it could rival Paris-Roubaix in terms of impact. Races such as these have spawned the 'gravel grinder' trend and created a new category of bicycles for manufacturers to market. That achievement in itself should warrant inclusion in the WorldTour.
While we don't need every race to be extreme, the Strade Bianche harkens back to the era of Coppi and Bartali, and it has the backing of the Giro d'Italia organisers. The UCI needs top adjust the calendar so that Paris-Nice does not overlap with this event and give Strade Bianche the space it deserves to grow into a true Classic.
Asia needs a WorldTour race. The WorldTour needs China. The biggest cycling manufacturing hub in the world is in Taiwan, but the Tour de Taiwan is still too new and conflicts with the Spring Classics. There are other events like Tour de Langkawi and Tour of Qinghai Lake that have been around longer, but Hainan would be well positioned for a final throw down for some, and a welcome tropical holiday for the rest of the peloton. It would also give an important opportunity to the regional pro teams to race against the world's best - provided those WorldTour reforms include such latitude for the organisers.
Hainan's climate and natural beauty are a perfect backdrop for a major cycling event. Unlike Beijing, the islands suffer none of the air quality issues, and unlike Abu Dhabi, its temperature is mild.
Organisers of the Tour of Hainan recently hinted they might seek WorldTour status, but were willing to make a gradual climb to the top tier rather than a giant leap. Although not even in the same time zone, the Saitama Criterium and Japan Cup are relatively close and could make the trip for the teams well worth it. With a little tweaking to the calendar, there could be a strong block of racing post-Worlds in Asia and a suitable finale for the WorldTour calendar.
Just as there needs to be a WorldTour race in the US and China, the UCI should not neglect South America. The Tour de San Luis is far from perfect, but it is right now the biggest thing going and has plenty of promise for the future.
The racing in the Tour de San Luis has been stellar over the past few years - the stars of the future mingling with the established champions - and riders like Fernando Gaviria have been quickly snapped up by WorldTour teams thanks to their demonstrations in this race.
Although Tour de San Luis suffers a bit on the infrastructure front - transportation is not simple, television coverage has been spotty, and helicopter safety has been rather alarming at times - the fans are enthusiastic and the courses are worthy for the best riders in the world.
One more for the future
The UCI and ASO have been hard at work helping to develop the sport of cycling on the African continent, but the races are still not quite there in terms of support. But those in charge should keep a close eye on Eritrea. The already cycling-crazy country has gone absolutely bonkers for the sport since the success of Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus in the Tour de France. In 2016 there will be three new UCI-sanctioned races in that country - two one-day races and a return of the five-day Tour de Eritrea.
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