News feature, July 14, 2008
ProTour heading East?
With the Tour de France and other three week races no longer part of the ProTour, some are questioning the future of the series. However there are strong indications of interest from other areas, with Russia being very heavily involved. That country's cycling federation president Alexander Gusyatnikov spoke to Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes recently about the plans for a new ProTour team and also the Tour of Sochi, which will begin in May 2009.
It's an exciting time for Russian cycling. Rumours of one, possibly two ProTour teams in 2009 plus an already-confirmed ProTour race in the country means that the sport will be moving forward and expanding there.
On Tuesday's Tour de France rest day in Pau the team currently known as Tinkoff Credit Systems will hold a press conference to announce details of its plans for 2009. Riders such as Gert Steegmans and Filippo Pozzato have been tipped in the media as having already signed, while the team is known to be chasing other big-name riders. A large increase in budget is expected, as well as a change in the title sponsor and the taking-out of a ProTour license.
In addition to this, the running of a new ProTour event was confirmed in April and will take place in the Sochi region, most likely from May 20th to 24th 2009. Both of these developments are part of a major push to develop cycling there.
Cyclingnews met with the Russian Cycling Federation president Alexander Gusyatnikov in recent weeks, getting the inside view on these and other developments. He spoke at the headquarters of the Russian Olympic Committee in Moscow's Luzhnetskaya Naberezhnaya area, where the national cycling federation is now based.
"This is all very important for Russian cycling," he said, referring to the developments. "Put it this way - previously, in Russia there was no top-level team and race, and when our children come into the sport, they have no idea, no goal to chase after. If a boy comes to play hockey, he says to himself, "I want to be Fetisov, I want to be in the NHL" or "I want to join the Central Army Sport Club team in Moscow". Those children know where they want to be. The same applies for basketball.
"But in cycling there was nothing like that...they say "I want to be a professional, I want to go to Italy". This is wrong for a child who just started riding, who is very interested in the bicycle itself, not as sport but as fun. When he starts riding he becomes interested in cycling as sport and he needs to be able to see the heights to strive for. There was none [a ProTour level structure] in Russia before, but now we are trying to build it."
The Tinkoff professional continental team has been competing in some of the sport's biggest races in Europe for the past two seasons but all the indications now are that it is stepping up a gear. Cyclingnews contacted the team's general manager Stefano Feltrin in recent days to confirm the talk about the team's expansion. And while the Italian said that he couldn't give precise details in advance of the press conference in Pau on Tuesday, he did indicate that there would be considerable changes in 2009.
Going by what Gusyatnikov told Cyclingnews earlier, plans are advanced. "A ProTour team will be formed...maybe even two teams, we have an idea to create two. Most likely, it will be based on the Tinkoff Credit Systems team but the name will be different. They have already received the banker guarantee for the ProTour team, so it is being formed now.
"Personally, I'd like there to be two big teams. One of these is confirmed as being ProTour next year while we are in negotiations about the second one. It is important to note that the [ProTour] team won't be called Tinkoff. That company will be involved, but the title sponsor itself is still not decided. Such structures as Gazprom, Itera, Gazprom Bank and Rosbank are possiblities. Rosbank is very interested, since French Bank Societe Generale has a share with it now [it is a majority shareholder - ed.].
At that point in time, Gusyatnikov said that negotiations were ongoing. Tuesday's press conference will give more details, but it's almost certain the title sponsor will have been finalised now. "They are all united by Itera, because the ideologist is Itera," he previously told Cyclingnews at that meeting in Moscow. "For eight years now it has been sponsoring the Russian Cycling Federation and, so to say, sponsors all the national teams of Russia.
"It happened because the president of this company is a cyclist, a world-class athlete...he won the USSR Youth Championships, so he has good notion of cycling as a sport. There are also a lot of cyclists, Olympic champions, working in this company. For example Valeriy Movchan, Sergei Nikitenko, and others. I used to work in this company also, and then was delegated to be Federation President."
As is usually the case during the Tour de France, the start village and the press room are full of rumours about who is going where. Many contract dealings are finalised around this time, and even though UCI rules restrict confirmation of team changes until September, details often leak out.
If the rumours are true, both Steegmans and Pozzato will be heading to the new-look team. Other big names are also expected to be confirmed, with well-known Russian riders likely to be part of this.
Gusyatnikov said that more information would be released during the Tour. Talking in June, he told Cyclingnews some of those that they were chasing. "Of course we negotiate with [Denis] Menchov, [Vladimir] Karpets, the Efimkin brothers, with those Russian sportsmen who already have some achievements. And if we talk about foreign riders - about half of those in the top ten in the world have already contacted us to enquire if there is a team and to speak about possible contracts. It is known that the team is being formed and initiative should be shown."
Since then, Menchov has been confirmed as staying with Rabobank for an additional two years. But the team is likely to have done its utmost to confirm the others on its wish-list. Gusyatnikov said that the budget is on par with the other big ProTour teams, and this ties in with the rumours of a major increase in budget for what is currently the Tinkoff squad.
However, as far as the Russian cycling federation is concerned, it's not just about the top level of the sport. Getting one (or possibly two) ProTour teams in 2009 is part of a drive to develop cycling from the professional level downwards
"Of course, we can't do this without looking at the other levels," he said. "Building a team and "launching" it is the easiest thing. We just need money and a sponsor, who in turn gets his profit - that's all. But what is important is to build a pyramid, which will include continental teams...for a country like Russia and with the number of cyclists here, we need to have four to five of those teams, that would be perfect.
"Alongside that, all those clubs and cycling centres that we have now will start working with the goal of bringing children into the sport, then developing them and helping them to move on towards the continental team, then the professional and even the ProTour team. A long-term structure is the best way to develop the sport."
ProTour in Sochi
At a time when many big races have pulled out of the ProTour, the UCI has taken a new direction with its series and now sees it as leverage to globalise the sport. In keeping in with this goal, the Tour Down Under was elevated to the ProTour calendar this season. Other races are expected to be added, including races in China and South Africa.
As mentioned above, a five day event in the Sochi region will be run from 2009 onwards. The resort area is the location for the 2014 winter Olympics and holding a top-level cycling event there is part of the Russian government's plan to tie other sporting events in with this.
The drive to have a ProTour race goes all the way to the top; Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was involved in that and will send his deputy PM Alexander Zhukov to supervise the race. The latter will act as the chairman of the race organizing committee.
For many years the area has hosted the GP Sochi, a 2.2 race which was held in April of this year. This will remain, with a new event in the same area being added to the highest rung of the calendar. "Sochi has been having its own race for the last 55 years. We are going to leave it there and have this ProTour race separately," Gusyatnikov said. "The plan this year is to have a trial race, running from the 10th - 14th of September. Then next year the new [ProTour] race will be held.
"It will be the Tour of Sochi. Some people want to called it the Tour of Sochi 2014 to underline the Winter Olympics connection, but personally I am against that because we don't want to mix up the sports."
The first edition of the race will be five days long and is pencilled in to take place from May 20th - 24th. It will be developed over time, with additional roads being built in the area for this purpose. It may also become longer in duration, depending on how the first few editions go.
The first indications are positive ones. "Charly Mottet and Alain Rumpf came over to see the course," said Gusyatnikov. "They were very impressed. Charly Mottet said, "ah, Paris-Nice!" when he saw it. The route goes along the coast, along a rather straight, undulating road. It makes it very interesting. Two stages will be flat while the other three will be harder. One finish will be in the Ahun mountain, with another will be in Krasnaya Polyana, the centre of the future Olympic Games. We plan to finish there on the Olympic Square, where the award presentation ceremony for the Winter Olympics will take place.
"The first two-three years will be the most difficult to carry out the race, because those lateral roads, that we plan to have, haven't been built yet and there is only one road on the coast for now. This will, of course, create a problem for the local people, but I hope they will understand us. Once those roads have been finished, we will consider the length of the race; for now it will remain at five days, but that could change."
Considering the news that the country will have one - or perhaps two - ProTour teams in 2009 as well as an event on this level, and also factoring in Gusyatnikov's stated intentions that continental teams will be promoted, it's clear that there is a lot of new impetus into cycling in the country.
When asked how this drive came about, he gave three reasons. "The first is that somebody in the government decided that we should take this direction, this is very important for the government. Putin stressed the importance of cycling in Russia, and so it took off. In addition to that, this very year is the 125th anniversary of cycling in Russia. We are counting from 1883, when the first cycling race took place on July 24th in Moscow.
"And the third factor is the enthusiasm of the president of Itera bank. He has united all the banks, Gazprom and the others, and through them the budgeting all came together."
The current climate within cycling is an uncertain one, with the Grand Tour organisers pulling away from the ProTour and also other teams such as Liquigas and Cofidis not renewing their licences. However, with Russian, British and Australian teams expected to take out their own ProTour licences in the near future - and with events outside Europe being added to that calendar - a globalisation is certainly starting to take place.
Critics of the ProTour series claim that the withdrawal of some of the sport's flagship events makes it less relevant than before. The UCI counter this by saying that the worldwide development of the sport is now the priority, and that cycling needs to expand outside Europe in order to continue to grow. Time will tell how successful this push will be, but indications are that cycling in Russia has a very strong future ahead.
[Nadia Fedorova provided technical assistance for this article.]
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