A central tenant of Brian Cookson's tenure as UCI president has been his and the governing body's reform of the WorldTour. In 2017, 10 new events were added to the premier calendar.
While the reforms have been far from plain sailing with politicking and power plays writ large, and stakeholders communicating via the media, Cookson is confident he and UCI Management Committee have struck the right balance. During an informal press conference at the Tour Down Under, dubbed 'Coffee with Cookson', he continually repeated his caveat that the long terms gains of the reform will require patience and possible short-term pain.
"What we are trying to achieve is a balance. Cycling has its traditional heartlands, some of those traditional heartlands have been challenged, we have lost one or two there, so there is massive potential in the rest of the world," an on message Cookson said of the WorldTour expansion into new continents.
"North America, Asia, here also in Australia with the Cadel Evans event. There has been a lot of interest in the WorldTour to come to these parts of the world. Cycling can't always be just in northern Europe, it has to expand and seek opportunities."
While the number of teams is unchanged for now at 18, the WorldTour calendar has expanded to include events in the UAE, Turkey, USA, and Britain for the first time as the UCI continues its ambition of globalising the sport. Explaining the Tour of Qatar's demise was due to both political and economic factors, Cookson was buoyant when talking about the other new WorldTour events compared to other lines of questions during the 25-minute sit-down, stressing 'balance' and 'adjustment'.
"The teams didn't really want to be forced to ride at all the events so we had to strike a balance between seeking expansion of the WorldTour and getting the events that were keen to get into the WorldTour giving them some sort of guarantee of help achieving participation level," said Cookson of the races, which are obliged to invite all 18 WorldTour teams, and must secure a minimum of ten to ensure their continued status in the top tier.
"It's been a difficult process and different points of view have been expressed and there have been some compromises along the way. I think several of those new events that are in the programme have had no difficulty at all, or will have no difficulty at all in getting ten WorldTour teams. Others may struggle. This is something we will have to monitor very closely in terms of the loading on the teams.
The Tour of Turkey is one new WorldTour race that appears be in the camp of races that will struggle to attract teams. The challenge for the UCI, and Cookson, is to ensure long-term stability of the WorldTour, rather than 'boom and bust' so that current races don't join the likes of Qatar or the Tour of Beijing on the WorldTour scrap heap. And neither do the teams.
"Again, we need to monitor that. I think most of the events aren't actually that much bigger of an imposition on the teams frankly, but let's monitor it and see how it goes," he said. "We should see this year as a work in progress. Let's see how things work out and we may necessarily make some adjustments for next year and future years.
"It is not a perfect system but it is a move in the right direction."
Having initially played hardball with the reforms, Cookson's comments suggested a softening and more diplomatic approach to getting the WorldTour to where he wants it. He also explained that the planned reduction in team number numbers will be assessed over the first half of 2017 with possible changes to be ready for 2018.
"Professional cycling demands sponsors, investment and funding for both teams and races so that is something we are seeing now. It's a balance, we are in a period where we will look at what happens in the next three years and see if we are going in the right direction."
With Cookson's campaign for a second term as UCI president to kick into gear as the season progresses, there could be further adjustments to the WorldTour reforms, ensuring a degree of fluidity continues at the top tier of the sport at a time when the teams are craving great stability and structure to attract financial investment and secure their future.
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