Pro Tour to Continue?

by Jack  

The last week or two have been extremely important for cycling. For one, the Olympics presented us with some epic races for both the men and the women. We are all excited to have Levi Leipheimer has a bronze medalist and Kristen Armstrong as Olympic Champion. The other major development was the ongoing dialogue related to the future of the Pro Tour and the battle between the governing body of cycling, the UCI and the owners of the Tour de France, ASO.

It was announced this past Monday that we could possibly be close to a concrete agreement between the UCI and ASO in how the international cycling calendar should be organized. But first, a quick background.

The Pro Tour series created four years ago was meant to catapult the sport to the next level, similar to that of Formula 1. The top 20 teams that received licenses had to prove sufficiency in both financing as well as organization. By doing so, this guaranteed these 20 teams entry to all of the top events as part of the Pro Tour series. In theory, this sounded like a good idea. Sponsors would know when they signed on the dotted line that they will get exposure in races, especially the Tour de France.

This of course was what ASO objected to. The Tour is the most popular and prestigious race in the world and by joining the Pro Tour, the Tour would be giving up some of the power that comes with those distinctions. This objection came to a boil this year with the exclusion of several Pro Tour teams, including the defending champion Alberto Contador's Astana team. We could have seen signs of this problem just a year before when ASO excluded the Unibet team from competing. Sure, ASO claimed gambling advertising as an excuse, which was against French law, but most knew that it was ASO trying assert their powers instead.

Fast forward to this week.

Thanks to mediation from the IOC, specifically French skiing hero Jean-Claude Killy, and the intervention of Editions Philippe Amaury (EPA), the parent company that owns the ASO and the Tour de France, cycling fans will finally be assured that the best teams will start the best races and the sport can conduct itself with professionalism and dignity.

Branded the "UCI World Calendar", teams will continue to participate under the Pro Tour system in the Pro Tour races but with the inclusion of the "historical monuments", the riders will be able to participate in the Grand Tours as well as the other major races like Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo. There will be a new ranking system for both cyclists and teams of which to choose the teams for each Grand Tour. This guarantees the top 17 or 18 teams participation in the major races while allowing organizers like ASO freedom to invite smaller teams. But the bottom line is all of the top level races, teams and cyclists will fall under one jurisdication, the UCI. On the contrary, the biggest question mark will be the two ranking systems (Pro Tour and UCI World Calendar) and how they will be integrated to create one best team and one best cyclist.

Now, the entire cycling world is waiting for the formal approval from ASO. But because it's parent company, EPA, participated in the initial mediation, ASO is expected to give its blessing to the new system. Assuming the parties can formalize the agreement, we can see the new system up and running during the 2011 season. Beforehand, the cycling seasons will continue as is while the teams honor their agreement signed with ASO this past June.

Will this work? I sure hope so. Cycling needs legitimacy that can only come with a governing body. We can go back and forth about the faults of the UCI but one thing is certain. Without oversight, a sport can turn corrupt and lose its legitimacy. Once those are lost, the fans will leave and sponsor money will run dry. Let's see what happens.

In the meantime, here's some light reading on the issue:

UCI announces launch of 'world calendar'
ProTour: Bouncing back or lame duck?
War is over? ASO/UCI reach accord
UCI threatens sanctions for Tour riders
UCI responds to Tour de France
ASO chief: We're not making a new league

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