UCI trying to avoid a war with ASO over pro cycling reforms

David Lappartient, the vice president of the UCI, the president of the French Cycling Federation, the European Cycling Union and president of the influential UCI’s Professional Cycling Council, has told Cyclingnews he believes it is possible to find a compromise solution and a draw up a set of reforms for professional cycling that will prevent the power struggle between the organisers of the Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), and the leading teams in the sport from escalating.

On Friday it emerged that ASO had threatened to pull its races from the WorldTour calendar if a 15-page reform document was approved for the interim period of 2017-2020. The letter accused the UCI of straying from its role as an intermediary or guide, saying that the governing body has been “caught off-side” and “would be close to endorsing a mercantile system, extraneous to sporting merit, in which the right to participate would be bought by the teams.”

Cyclingnews revealed details of the complex power struggle in an exclusive story on Monday after seeing the reform proposal document and the letter of protest from ASO, and after talking to several sources close to the reform process.

As head of French cycling but also a key player at the UCI, Lappartient is trying walk a tightrope across cycling’s no-man’s land. He is under pressure from both sides, but also seems keen to promote himself as a future UCI president. He is an able politician, even when speaking in English, and seems to genuinely want to find a solution to the reform conflict, one that appeases the teams pushing for a more stable business model, and satisfies dominant race organisers like ASO who want to defend the status quo and keep the power and influence they have developed over time.

“I don’t think it’ll be easy to find a solution, for sure, but we have no other solution but to find a solution,” Lappartient told Cyclingnews during a telephone interview from the European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan.

“Sometimes it is possible to find peace after a war but we don’t even want a war. Instability is not good for the teams or anyone in cycling. Brian and I really want to create a stable system but stability does not come with a closed system. It’s about knowing the rules and applying them. It’s about having something that is accessible for everyone.”

ASO is not isolated

Lappartient has played a key role in the developing the planned reforms to professional cycling. Yet it seems something changed recently as time ran out to present the reforms, with the teams pushing for a more closed, protective system to defend their interests. Surprisingly, despite being involved in the reform discussions, Lappartient then voted against the proposed reforms for 2017-2020 at the PCC meeting on June 16 and further opposed the ideas at the more recent UCI Management meeting.

“It’s true, at the last PCC meeting, I voted against the planned reforms,” he admitted to Cyclingnews when asked directly. “In principal I agree what is in the reform because I was involved in building them. I’m 90 per cent in favour of them but first we need to decide what is an open system and then we can approve the document.”

“It’s important to understands the details of what is going on. Our (the UCI’s) idea was to have the maximum possible consensus for the reforms. But unfortunately it was not possible to reach an agreement between all the stakeholders.

“On one side there were the teams and specifically the AIGCP, which was lead by the Velon team; on other side the organisers, who are not completely on the same line. I must say that it’s not true that only ASO are against the current reforms. In fact I’d say it is more than 50 per cent of the race organisers are against them. The ones who aren’t are RCS Sport and the Tour de Suisse, who have an agreement with Velon for better participation in their races. That’s why they are not against the teams. If you have a contract with Velon, you can’t be against the teams. I imagine there will be a discussion at AIOCC (the international race organisers’ association) and I think they will soon have a meeting to fix a common position. But I think the position of ASO will have the majority inside AIOCC.

“It’s important to remember that the UCI Management Committee is the governing body of the UCI and for now the Management Committee did not approve the reform proposal. It was not refused but it was not accepted for the moment because we do not want to enter into a war with ASO.

“We do not want to argue who is right or wrong. We couldn’t find a solution for all the stakeholders and so we need to continue to talk. The big sticking point is what represents an open system in cycling. The current proposal started with a provisional structure for 2017-2020 rather than deciding what the rules will be afterwards, from 2020 onwards. We think we need to find the final solution and then discuss the period in between.”

The case for an open, sporting, merit-based system

The current teams in the WorldTour, and especially the 11 Velon teams who have created a joint business venture to defend and develop their interests, are looking to find more stability via different revenue sources and strong unity. They appear more in favour of a US-style franchise system that would allow them to offer security to sponsors and backers - what the ASO refer to as a 'closed system.'

However, race organisers and especially ASO are against any reforms that would strengthen the hand of the teams. ASO’s letter warned against four key aspects proposed in the latest reform document: granting licenses automatically for three years between 2017-2020, giving teams the choice to opt out of any new WorldTour races, the abolition of a promotion/relegation system and especially against the introduction of appearance fees for teams in the WorldTour races.

Lappartient told Cyclingnews that he believes there are three main areas in the reform proposal that need further work.

“The first is to fix the rules of an open system,” he reiterated, rejecting the idea that promotion/relegations leads to insecurity for the teams because they could lose their place in the WorldTour.

“We really want to have an open system where it is possible to enter the WorldTour and to leave the WorldTour if you are not up to the level. We don’t want a closed system at all. I made that very clear to the teams and the Management Committee that I will never support a system like that. A closed system is not my philosophy and I don’t think it’s our (the UCI’s) philosophy for sport. Maybe it’s more of a North American philosophy, like in the NBA or baseball, but it’s not our philosophy of sport in Europe. We must have an open system. The position of the Management committee is very clear on that point.

"My second point is the participation rules. We want to welcome some new races in the WorldTour like the Tour of Turkey, [Tour of] California or even Abu Dhabi, Strade Bianche in Italy and the Nordic race, maybe even the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, so that the WorldTour is on every continent. But first we have to fix some participation rules. We know we can’t have all the best riders in every race but I think we can solve the problems of participation.

“The third and most difficult aspect of the reform is that of appearance fees. The organisers and especially ASO said that participation (in races) must be governed by UCI rules, with no extra price or fees involved. However, the teams said they think the best way to increase the level of races is to have contracts between the teams and the races but not under UCI rules.

“Officially, appearance fees do not exist but yes, we know that it’s the case now with RCS Sport (who apparently pays some teams a fee from their TV rights income so they send their best riders to the RCS Sport races). But fees can create problems and I’ll give you an example: The Tour Down Under is on at the same time as the Tour de San Luis and for the Tour Down Under to be in the WorldTour, they have to welcome all the best teams and fly them in business class, etc. All that costs them a lot of money. At San Luis they have two or three star riders like Mark Cavendish and they only pay them to race. That penalises the Tour Down Under and so they could consider leaving the WorldTour and just pay a few team leaders to have lower costs for their race.

“Going forward, we have to find a balance to avoid these kinds of problems.”

No current interest in fight with Cookson for UCI presidency

Cyclingnews understands that Lappartient and UCI Management members Mike Plant of the US and Tom Van Damme of Belgium have been asked to elaborate further details and study the consequences and impact of the reforms proposed. However, Lappartient knows that finding a solution will not be easy, with each side determined to fight for their own interests.

“I think everyone will always want to protect what they have,” he said. “I’m not here to say that the dispute is the fault of ASO or the teams. What I’m saying is that our duty is to solve the problem. It’s collectively our (every stakeholders’) fault that we're in this situation now and unable to find a solution. We all have a responsibility to find a solution.”

Lappartient is stuck in the middle between his important role of vice president at the UCI and his role as president of the French Cycling Federation. He clearly has an international view for the sport but travels with a French passport.

“It’s not easy for me because of my different roles in the sport,” he said. “You know, under French law the Tour de France has to be organised with the French Cycling Federation. The Tour de France can maybe leave the UCI but it can’t leave the FCC. In the same way, I can’t refuse to accept them in the French calendar if they respect technical and safety rules.

“That’s why it’s difficult for me. But I’m trying to push for consensus and I hope that all the stakeholders will have the same opinion and find the compromise for the good of the sport.”

Some suspect that Lappartient is manoeuvring to make an eventual play for the UCI presidency. Elections are not due until 2017, when Cookson’s first four-year term ends at the annual UCI Congress.

Lappartient is clearly ambitious and extremely active, wearing multiple hats in different Federations, as well as that of the vice president of the UCI and president of the Professional Cycling Council.

He flatly denied any current interest in challenging Brian Cookson for the role of president but that could perhaps change in 2017 if Cookson loses any of the support from international delegates and federations which saw him dethrone Pat McQuaid and put him into power in Florence in 2013.

“Me as president of the UCI? That’s not the subject for the moment…” Lappartient told Cyclingnews, suddenly switching hats as if representing somebody else rather than the UCI.

“We don’t want to enter into a conflict with Brian. I know that the situation is difficult for him but we agreed with Brian to speak with one voice and find a solution that is an open system. Then we can defend together the UCI position. Sometimes we are in a different positions but we are not fighting each other and not using it (the reforms) for conflict.”

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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.