February 2005

See Barry Boyce's ProTour Reference Guide Here.

See last month's ProTour Calendar Here.


Controversy, Confusion, Commitment – the UCI’s ProTour

This month our cover photo depicts Phonak team owner Andy Rihs who has spent the past few months battling with the UCI and maybe even deciding if continuing with his team in the sport makes sense. Happily Rihs took his case to the CAS (Court of Arbitration and Sport) who upheld his case against the UCI. Consequently Phonak now becomes the 20th member of the elite ProTour team roster. Controversial yes, but the Phonak case is just one example of the battles and questions surrounding the introduction of the ProTour. Here we provide our view of the (ProTour) story so far. For your convenience a quick reference of the major features of the ProTour are provided through the link to your left along with a link to our ProTour 2005 race calendar.

Sir Winston Churchill explained that to predict the future you need to understand history. This truism was amply proven with Churchill’s predictions and warnings made during his “wilderness years” leading up to WWII.

If we now take a Churchillian step back into cycling history to view the evolution of ‘umbrella’ competitions at the elite level of racing we start with the Challenge Desgrange Colombo which ran from 1948 to 1958. This was followed by the Super Prestige Pernod competition which commenced in 1961 and finished in 1987. The World Cup (individual category) was introduced in 1989 and its final appearance was in 2004. The UCI ProTour will be next in this line and take to the road in 2005.

“The Challenge” and the “Super Prestige” were corporate sponsored competitions. The World Cup and now the ProTour were created and managed by the UCI. However, what many people overlook is that the World Cup / ProTour are very much more than competitions aimed at riders and teams.

Back in 1986 Hein Verbruggen was the principal architect behind the World Cup concept, which he introduced to the FICP (Federation Internationale du Cyclisme Professionel) in Brussels. One of his major proposals was to reduce the length of stage races to create more time on the calendar for ‘sponsored World Cup competition one-day classics.’ This greatly angered (the late) Tour de France director Felix Levitan. A week after the Brussels congress Levitan dismissed the whole World Cup idea as a “complete waste of time.” Since then the volatile relationship between the Tour, other big race organizers and the UCI has simmered on the back burner.

Like a volcano, the whole thing exploded into the headlines during 2004 with Verbruggen’s ProTour proposals. History repeated itself and again the organizers of the Tour de France dismissed the ProTour in no uncertain terms. This time they also partnered with the Giro and Vuelta organizers in a direct confrontation with Verbruggen. Unbelievably, towards the end of the year Verbruggen published a message claiming unity with the Grand Tour organizers. This was immediately refuted by the Tour organizers.

In our recent CyclingRevealed feature article ‘Perception and Reality: The UCI dilemma,’ we discussed this issue. Central to our theme was the fact that Hein Verbruggen demonstrates a dictatorial style that rides roughshod over diplomacy and the democratic process.

In principal the primary ProTour proposals are designed to help cycle sport grow and prosper as we move into the 21st Century:

The creation of the UCI ProTour has three objectives:

  • To make cycling more attractive to the public, especially by improving participation levels at key events of the season.
  • Increase the interest that it generates with investors, by offering teams, organizers, broadcasters and their main partners, guarantees as regards the profit that they will make from their investment. For that, the big races must benefit from as much media coverage as possible.
  • Contribute to the development of cycling on all continents (outside Europe), by providing it with an environment in which it can flourish without suffering from the competition of UCI ProTour races.

Admirable in its goals, there is no doubt that the sport needs continual improvement and refinement to both survive and grow. There is fierce competition from numerous sports for sponsorship money and media coverage.

From a business point of view the introduction and attempted implementation of the proposed plans has been a catastrophe. Verbruggen’s heavy-handed approach has come into direct conflict with big money organizations. When the World Cup first came into being, Verbruggen’s idea was to have the competition sponsored. The big race organizers rejected this out of hand and their sponsors because of course at the major events the race promoters did not want competing ‘main sponsors.’ Again with the ProTour, money and power are the central issues. In effect, the UCI is trying to create a ‘super league’ with themselves as the controlling body. For obvious reasons major race organizers are not going to allow that to happen. Much has been written about the ProTour and most of it has been very negative. However if you step back and look at the big picture there are underlying strategies that if implemented correctly will certainly pay huge dividends over the long term. For example the ProTour teams (now 20 in number) are secured for four years with guaranteed entry into the (currently) 27 ProTour events. For the team sponsors this implies maximum exposure at all of the world’s top races for a full four years. From a business point of view this provides a way for potential sponsors to justify a considerable investment in the knowledge that they have a guaranteed four-year window to promote their brand image at the world’s most prestigious cycle races. Linked with this is the new “code of ethics” that every team has to sign on to. Obviously here we have an attempt to prove that ProTour teams and riders are “clean.” Naturally no sponsor wants to be associated with a scandal such as drugs or any other type of cheating and the code of ethics is an admirable element of the reforms.

An interesting aspect of the ProTour team concept is that every team must participate in every ProTour race. What this will do is spread the wealth. Already we can see that the Giro and Vuelta are going to be very different races this year. Teams and riders that rarely, if ever, visit these races will now grace the roads of these great events and make them look like the grand international affair that is Le Tour. Naturally the top riders will still pick and choose but now, for example, a team like Discovery will be obliged to send teams to both the Giro and Vuelta.

The flip side of this coin is that races not belonging to the ProTour could become fatalities. There are many of them with famous names and a long history. We can only hope that races like the Criterium International and the Dunkirk 4-day survive in the new order.

Taking Churchill’s advice in understanding how we got to the ProTour certainly illuminates why we have such friction between the UCI (Verbruggen) and the cycling establishment. But Marx may be nearer to the point in his assertion that “history repeats itself as a farce.”

Here we are in February and the first ProTour race has yet to start, but already there are almost farcical happenings. If Verbruggen has been the face of the UCI then it can be said that Phonak’s Andy Rihs (team owner) has been a major target for the UCI to impose its will. Following the Camenzind, Hamilton and Perez incidents, the entire Phonak team was blackballed by the UCI and as a result Phonak was excluded from the ProTour. Rihs did not take this laying down and eventually took his case to the CAS (Court of Arbitration and Sport) who overturned the UCI decision. Consequently Phonak became the 20th team to join the official ProTour roster. And now we have the farce. As soon as Phonak was admitted into the ProTour -- which remember, guarantees admission into all ProTour races --the organizers of the Vuelta stated that Phonak was not welcome. Their reasoning was that they needed the Phonak slot as one of the few wild cards to admit local Spanish teams. If this stand is allowed by the UCI then precedence has been established that makes a mockery of the whole UCI ProTour guarantee. For now any ProTour race organizer should be able to do the same as the Vuelta in selecting which teams join their events.

Now let us look at the Pro Tour rules: Perhaps not so much a farce, but a reality, is the fact that we are entering the race season WITHOUT the Pro Tour rules being fully written, let alone understood. Also Verbruggen is very much continuing in his empirical ways, imposing his will in the style of Henri Desgrange who, during his reign was not only the creator, but also lord and master of the Tour de France. He would create rules and apply sanctions at will during the race itself. With the current state of the Pro Tour and the way it is being managed we see the re-incarnation of Desgrange.

Almost daily we see evidence of this. At the recent World Cyclocross Championships, fourth place-finisher Francis Mourey of France had agreed to have his heart rate and other parameters transmitted live during the race (Stuart O’Grady also did this during last year’s Tour). Hein Verbruggen objected violently to Mourey making such data public and tried to prevent him from doing it. Regardless of the reasons, there are no UCI rules pertaining to such activity. So all we see is someone’s freedom of action being attacked by overbearing authority.

Unfortunately the negative aspects of the UCI reforms appear wherever you look. Take the America Tour (Continental Circuit). There are 37 events listed that span the Northern Hemisphere from Canada to the Southern Hemisphere to Europe (Spain for the World Championships). The sheer magnitude of distance between races is incredible. Sitting in the comfy UCI headquarters it probably seemed reasonable laying out this plan. Europe is one block, the Americas another and so on. In Europe the epicenter of cycling encompassing Holland and Denmark in the north to Spain and Italy in the south and can be traversed by plane in about 1.5hrs. In the USA if you live on the East Coast and are planning on participating in a race in California you face about a 6,000-mile round trip. For the Continental Circuits it is a situation that conjures up images of Charlie Chaplin’s famous ‘Great Dictator’ as he balanced the globe like a juggler!

The vast expanse of geography also has another issue besides the time and cost to travel. Most UCI continental teams are sponsored by companies whose commercial interests tend to be limited within their own country (if not one part of the country). Consequently the sponsors have no interest in financing a team to travel to parts of the world where their brand is not in business. The issues of distance and promotional value were summed up by a U.S. team official who stated that the UCI America Tour is “not worth a hill of beans.” Teams will simply focus on the races that make sense to them.

This sentiment echoes the plans of many ProTour teams and riders. So far no team or rider has stated that they are targeting the ProTour. Armstrong may or may not ride the Tour. For him the Giro and Vuelta are not in question. His interests now seem focused on his legacy with the intent of scoring in significant one-day races (probably the five monuments) as well as claiming the world one-hour record. Over at T-Mobile they have stated that their season is focused on the Tour. Ullrich desperately wants to win the race one more time. Elsewhere individuals and teams discuss race-specific goals but almost never mention the ProTour.

In spite of all of this Verbruggen and the UCI have instigated the wind of change. There is no turning back and the journey is going to be characterized by controversy and confusion but in the end cycling will definitely grow and prosper.



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