Brian Cookson on WorldTour reform: The status quo is not an option

The UCI WorldTour seminar was considered a major turning point in the future of professional cycling, with significant changes confirmed to begin in 2017, offering three-year licences to both teams and organisers and the chance for new races to be added to the WorldTour calendar starting in 2017.

The two days of meetings and presentations were expected to see a showdown between the UCI – which has worked on a new version of the reforms since Brian Cookson's election in 2013, and Tour de France organiser ASO. However, the Tour de France organisers stayed silent during the seminar. Despite interview requests from Cyclingnews, the ASO have yet to explain fully their position regarding reforms and make their proposals.

In this interview Brian Cookson gives his views on the outcome of the WorldTour seminar. He talks about the details of the reforms and his often tense relationship with ASO. Cookson is a diplomat rather than a commander but is determined to push through the reforms of professional cycling, despite ASO’s objections.

With possible ownership changes to key race organisers also in the news, Cookson called on representatives of sports companies Wanda Group and Infront to talk to the UCI.

Cyclingnews: How did the seminar go? Are you satisfied with the outcome?

Brian Cookson: I think it went very well. I think we’ve now got a balanced set of proposals. It’s not reductionist as the previous proposals from 2013 were. Nobody’s assets are under threat. Maybe not everybody is happy with every aspect but it’s a good set of proposals that I think is a strong solution to things that were damaging in the previous proposals. As I pointed out, in my opinion piece in Cyclingnews last week, even the fans didn’t like those proposals. I pretty much inherited them and we’ve spent the last two years trying to revise them, review and try to come up with something that works a lot better. And I think we’ve got there.

CN: What happened during the seminar? Did anyone oppose the proposals?

BC: We gave the opportunity to people to ask questions and discuss them at the end of the first session. There were a few questions but there were no major criticisms or no major areas of dispute. I went out of my way to give everyone who wasn’t happy the opportunity to speak, to make a contribution to the debate but no major issues were raised.

CN: Did ASO or AIOCC not raise any doubts or go against the proposals?

BC: ASO said nothing during the meeting. That was surprising but that was their position. Let's see what they come up with in the future. I don’t think it’s a secret that there are things they’re not very happy about.

Obviously, I’m slightly puzzled by their reaction at this stage. But I want to reassure them that there’s nothing in the proposals that threatens their assets, their rights or whatever. I think by working together we can find ways of overcoming any issues, any uncertainties, and create what is in everyone’s interests.

Most other people in the room think that’s that we achieved. I think it’s up to ASO to help us make our sport stronger, better and more international. Nobody wants to damage anything that ASO does. The Tour de France is always going to be a great event. I think we can ensure our sport thrives by working with them, but also by giving others the opportunity to grow and have a greater level of financial stability too.

If you speak to other WorldTour organisers, they pretty much unanimously support the changes. If you speak to Czeslaw Lang at the Tour de Pologne and the Flanders Classics people, you’ll find they’re very happy with the proposals. I find it hard to understand why the Vuelta organisers are not in favour because there is now no suggestion that the Vuelta will be cut to two weeks. Perhaps all the organisers didn’t have a balanced picture at their disposal at their AIOCC meeting.

CN: Will ASO eventually have to accept the reforms? They seem to refuse any form of dialogue, even with the media. Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme refused to talk about the reforms with Cyclingnews at the Tour de Yorkshire presentation.

BC: Really? If you can’t engage in dialogue about a set of issues, then you’re never going to resolve those issues. Perhaps they're keeping their powder dry; I don’t know. They can’t say they haven’t had the opportunity to contribute to the reform proposals. They have. I think they really should start to work with us and I appeal to them and to everyone else, to work with us and not against us. We’ll achieve more by working together than by fighting with each other.

CN: Can you force people to accept what has been a long, democratic process?

BC: At the end of the day the UCI is the international governing body. And I say governing, not controlling, because we have to respect that cycling includes a wide range of diverse stakeholders.

I can’t force people to do what they don’t want to do. I can only apply the rules and get people to sit at the table. We’ll keep talking as long as necessary. But we’re not going backwards. The status quo is not an option. The 2013 reform proposals are not an option. We have to move forward and do things that work for our sport. What we’re proposing now has the support of the majority of the stakeholders.

The key reforms

CN: Can you summarise the key changes the reforms will create to professional cycling? They don’t seem revolutionary. Are they enough to make a real impact?

BC: I think so. The idea of revolutionary changes was based on false promises. The 2013 proposals failed to recognise the beauty and heritage of our sport, they wanted to put it into a straight jacket or a model that works for other sports but would have been damaging for cycling. We’re trying to make an evolution, not a revolution.

We’re trying to create greater financial stability, so there will be three-year licences for the teams – still with annual assessments. The races also get the same kind of commitment, even if it's something they’ve always had. We’re no longer threatening to reduce the number of teams in the WorldTour or have a maximum number of 25 riders, we’re leaving the limit at 30 riders and giving WorldTour teams the chance of having a development team. We’ve got to work out the details of that because it could be financially challenging. We’re also finding new ways of fitting new events into the WorldTour calendar. We’re not going to force the Vuelta to go down to two weeks or reduce other races. We’re going to find other solutions. We’re not going to get rid of race overlaps completely but we’re going to make sure there are never more than two events on at the same time.

Most WorldTour teams currently also ride many non-WorldTour events and those are the ones we want to bring into the WorldTour calendar subject to a detailed appraisal. We’re not going to increase the workload on the teams and riders; we’re going to manage it better. We want to find a place for a race like the Tour of Turkey if it works on the WorldTour calendar. It may have to reduce its number of race days and change their dates but we don’t want to damage anyone else's interests by doing that. We want a more consistent programme that runs through the season.

CN: Will races such as the Dubai Tour, the Tour of California or perhaps more ASO races be considered for WorldTour status? Could that be a way of appeasing ASO?

BC: Possibly. Applications for new WorldTour races for the 2017 calendar open on December 15. They will be appraised in 2016 and then a working group with representatives from AIOCC and the teams will find slots in the calendar for them. It may be a period of evolution over a few years but we will try to bring events of a sufficient calibre into the WorldTour in a way that works that doesn’t damage existing races.

CN: Will team sizes in races be reduced? ASO seems to want that, but some team managers, including Jim Ochowicz, are against it.

BC: There are different views on that. I think ASO have an interesting point and I see that Jim Ochowicz has resisted that idea. I think we can talk about that over the next 12 months and find a solution to that. I’m not ruling it out or ruling it in. There needs to be an agreement between the teams and the race organisers.

CN: Finally, there have been reports that the Chinese company Wanda Sports, who recently bought the Infront Sports & Media Group, could be interested in buying ASO and RCS Sport to take control of professional cycling. What do you think about that?

BC: I only know what I’ve read about the people behind the interesting acquisition of Infront. I know the people at Infront a little bit; I think Philippe Blatter (the head of Infront) is the nephew of (FIFA president Sepp Blatter). He seems to be a good operator and maybe is something we have to talk about.

It’s not within my power to stop it (a buy out) or encourage it. I think we have to look at what happens. I’d like to know more and if Infront or Wanda Group are interested in some assets in our sport, the sooner they come to talk to us how to work together, the better it will be. I don’t rule it out. It could be problematic but it could also be a great opportunity. Of course, I’m more than happy to continue working with the existing owner of the major events such as ASO and RCS Sport. And I hope they’re happy to work with us.

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Stephen Farrand
Head of News

Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has been Head of News at Cyclingnews since 2022, before which he held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and CyclingWeekly, among other publications.