Longstanding Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué has warned that holding the WorldTour so late in the 2020 season means teams' long-term survival prospects into 2021 and beyond will impact more heavily than usual on their racing performances this year.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, what remained of the season when the calendar ground to a halt in early March is now packed into a little over three months, and the last World Tour race of the year – the Vuelta a España – finishes on November 8th, a scant two months before road racing gets underway again in 2021.
As a result, Unzué told Cyclingnews, riders taking part in races in 2020 who are all too aware their squads are at risking of folding will have extremely fragile morale when it comes to their competitive edge, widening the gap between those confident of staying in the sport in 2021 and those wondering if they are set for the dole queue.
Having started as a director in the 1980s, one thing Unzué is not lacking is experience. But even he is in the dark about much of cycling's future.
As Unzué puts it, "when it comes to COVID-19, cycling is entering kilometre 0 of the race – as is everything else in the rest of the world. We're still a long way off from being able to predict what the final consequences will be."
Unzué is willing to make some predictions, though, on the enforced decision to hold the bulk of the WorldTour and all its biggest races in such a short, late period in 2020. "It will be complicated to carry out, and one thing that will affect the Grand Tours will be the teams' general state of morale – which in turn will be affected by whether they have a secure future."
"It's going to be very tough for all of us, too, to be there seeing colleagues and teams we know and appreciate, seeing they are having a really hard time simply to survive."
Asked if Movistar were in a stable position financially for next year after all the events of 2020, Unzué said there were no issues on that score. But, he added, "At the same time we can't be relaxed in a situation when we have a very limited idea what will happen in the rest of the year."
"Things are 'calm', but I'm saying that in inverted commas. We're very aware that some of our technical sponsors are going through extremely difficult times, either because they're not producing as much as they usually do or because they're not selling enough."
"Fortunately the riders in our team can go out to train in their respective countries, and the race calendar looks like it's probably happening, for now."
"But logically, should this possible calendar not happen, then a season with zero or almost zero results would be a very big problem for all of us."
"Teams exist in this sport because we race. So if there are no races, there will be consequences for everybody: organisers, teams, and above all, I think, riders."
An argument for financial reform
Unzué argues that one way of ensuring that teams collectively survive could be the creation of an independent financial regulatory mechanism designed to limit the effects of considerable budget imbalance between the largest and smaller teams.
That way, he believes "everybody is guaranteed some kind of return on their investment." If not, he warns, "four, five or six [WorldTour] teams won't have any problems next year. But up to 15 or so will, and those in the inferior categories, even more so. We've got to find a way that ensure teams don't disappear."
"We are a high-risk sport in the sense that you pay for what you think you are going to get. But the problem comes up when those objectives don't work out and you're still paying for the same. I'm looking for a formula which we could all justify our financial outlay."
Unzué argues that this reform is more urgent now because of the COVID-19 crisis, but that it has deep-seated roots.
Even before 2020, he believes, big budget teams were all but obliged to win races to justify their investment, while at the other end of the scale, small teams find it hard to justify their outlay because so much of the publicity 'cake' is soaked up by the top-level squads.
"Obviously some things money just doesn't buy, like a team's resourcefulness, its ability to read a race correctly. It's also true that the best teams are generally, in sport, the ones with the biggest budgets."
"I wouldn't say we have to have a budget 'cap', rather it'd be about trying to make certain expenses the same, so that the differences between them on that level are the minimum possible."
"Right now, some teams can spend three or four times as much as others - and it's hard to find a balance between all of the different teams."
Unzué believes, too, that among the reasons not to lose hope for professional cycling's future is that as a mode of transport that can help people get to work while maintaining social distancing, bikes will have a bigger role in society generally - which will, he expects, boost interest in the sport based on them.
"The other day I read, how some cities in Europe, in Milan for example, are making a huge effort to turn roads into bike paths. And in the future I don't think there will be many households in large parts of the world without at least one bike."
"Even before this [the pandemic] started, professional cycling was benefiting from greater and greater public interest. In that sense, I'm optimistic."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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