UCI president David Lappartient has revived the idea that professional cycling needs some form of financial fair play rules and perhaps a reduction of team sizes down to just six riders, to give other teams a chance against Team Sky in the Tour de France.
Certain teams, such as, Molteni, Gitane and Mapei, have dominated the sport over the years but Team Sky’s run of six Tour de France victories in the last seven years, fuelled by a reportedly much higher budget than its rivals, have left some cycling fans, especially in France, bored with the way the racing is controlled and often less entertaining. Television viewing figures have generally fallen in key countries in recent years and France has not won its home race for 33 years.
On Monday, an unnamed French directeur sportif outlined to Libération how a salary cap would mean a team like Sky would no longer be able to support its leaders with some of the strongest climbers in the peloton, and thus – at least in theory – help to create more open racing.
"The problem in cycling isn't doping anymore," he said. "It's money."
Lappartient seems to agree. "Something needs to change. We will create a working group to look at the attractiveness of professional races," Lappartient told radio station France Info, giving further details in a longer interview with French newspaper Le Temps.
"The goal is to have the best riders in different teams and so limiting the overall budget would mean better riders and a more attractive race," he suggested.
The UCI is currently trying to push through reforms of the WorldTour for the 2020 season, which could see a reduction to just 15 WorldTour teams and eventually a system of promotion and relegation. Teams are up in arms about the changes, angry that the UCI and ASO still hold far too much sway on the business model of professional cycling, leaving teams reliant on sponsorship.
Lappartient and Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford held a sort of war of words during the Tour de France, with the Briton suggesting Lappartient has a "local French mayor kind of mentality". He also suggested the hostile reaction to Team Sky from fans in France was a "French cultural thing."
The Frenchman, who is still the mayor of La Sarzeau in Brittany, hit back by suggesting Brailsford had offended all of France and warned him against using a Donald Trump-style of rhetoric.
Lappartient believes the distrust surrounding Team Sky has grown in recent years as a consequence of the Jiffy bag scandal, revelations of the strategic use of sports medicine, the British Parliamentary investigation and most recently Chris Froome's drawn-out salbutamol case. The four-time Tour de France winner was declared persona-non-grata by the Tour de France but then cleared of any wrongdoing by the UCI just four days before this year's race.
"Being locally elected, I know perfectly well that there are the facts and on the other hand the facts as perceived by the public. Sometimes, this perception is the opposite of reality," Lappartient said, revealing tension with ASO for their stance against Froome.
"When the ASO announced its intention not to allow Chris Froome to participate in the Tour, it knew that we were preparing to announce our verdict, because we had informed them but they did it anyway," Lappartient revealed.
"We'll never know if it was a fortuitous or intentional manoeuvre, but it put us in difficulty because the UCI was considered the villain because we cleared a rider that a race organizer wanted to exclude."
The public want a show
Lappartient has always denied any bias against Team Sky but suggests the British team may be too successful for the wider good of the sport.
"They win, and they'd be wrong to do otherwise, but the public sees things differently, they want a show. Sky are like a football team that plays very well but without exciting its fans," he said using a football comparison a few weeks after France won the World Cup.
"When the viewer sees eight riders of the team dictating the pace and locking down the race, they quickly change channels to watch a soap opera. The ball is in our court, it's up to the UCI to make sure that its races are attractive."
Hence Lappartient's calls for some kind of financial fair play.
"I'm against an individual salary cap. If a team wants to pay a rider 8 million euro, that's not a problem, but I think we could regulate the overall payroll budget of the teams, to balance their strengths,” he said.
"Team Sky has Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome and Egal Bernal, three riders who could finish first, second and third at the Tour de France. However, in the interest of cycling it is better if the best riders are in different teams.
"This is the strength of the Giro d'Italia. With some of the best teammates resting for the Tour de France, the leaders are less protected and so quickly have to go head to head."
No race radio, no power meters
Like many in France, Lappartient would also like to ban race radio and the use of power metres in races.
"We want to see riders pedalling their bikes without being, as Bernard Hinault says, machines following orders of someone in the team car behind," Lappartient said.
This year, team sizes for Grand Tours were reduced from nine to eight riders. This was officially done for safety seasons. Lappartient thinks further reductions in team sizes would stop a team like Sky dominating the racing.
"We should go further with a reduction to six, I think, for the measure to be really effective," he suggested.
"With seven, a team like Sky can still control the racing. With six, that would mean the leader's five teammates would tire a lot more. At the same time, we could have more teams to have a decent sized peloton.
"We'll launch an attractiveness study because there are many aspects to consider. Should we forbid race radio that kills off riders taking the initiative and the power metres that monitor riders? Should we rethink the style of the stages? We must analyse everything."
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