The Promising Implications of Two-League Cycling

Mar 24 2011

Sympathy for the Devil

Race officials looking bored by michelle658I’m not an especially big fan of the UCI, but don’t let the apparel fool you—they’re far from useless. In the past two decades, the governing body has actually made some pretty solid steps for the sport.

When I began following cycling about a decade ago, most sponsors were essentially unknown to me—small French and Italian firms like Bonjour and Pata-Chips. But a concerted effort from the UCI to entice bigger, more secure, more international backers has lead to a host of brands I’d heard of before—Columbia, HTC, Discovery Channel, T-Mobile, Skype, RadioShack, Garmin, Transitions, Chipotle, to name a few—at least dabbling in the sport since then.

The UCI’s efforts in this area have also all but eliminated the mid-season meltdowns that struck with regularity—Mercury and Coast most prominent among them. It’s not that the UCI has made things perfect (there was Astana’s brief refusal to pay, and who could forget the phony bank guarantee), but on the whole, the efforts have had a positive impact. At the ’06 Tour, Paul Kimmage—a former domestique—was struck by how much the improved funding has made things better for replaceable, also-ran riders.

The UCI has also done well to balance this sponsor attraction with improved anti-doping efforts—no, seriously. Since McQuaid’s tenure began, and efforts got underway to move toward a ProTour-like structure, we’ve seen three (counting Contador) Yellow Jerseys removed from the backs of dopers. We’ve seen guys like Rebellin, DiLuca, Ricco, Valverde, Kohl—the best of the best—busted, tried, and removed from the sport. It may seem easy to simply improve the testing and enforce the rules, but doing this while simultaneously attracting bigger money to the sport is a mighty fine tightrope to walk.

Sure, you could point to guys like Thomas Frei who (despite getting caught) say that it’s easy to beat the tests, but even with all the drama and exclusions surrounding the Festina Affair, riders looking to dope before 2005 simply didn’t face the same challenges, frequency of testing, or stringency of punishment that they do today. Raimondas Rumsas was a fish in a barrel compared to the meticulous, consistant work done to bring down Franco Pellizotti. As I’ve said before, the tests don’t have to be perfect—just good enough to make cheating not worth the risk.

Ultima Ratio Regum

Louis XIV by Hyacinthe RigaudThe problem with all this positive change, however, is that much of it comes at the expense of people and business that have supported and promoted cycling for years—in some cases, for over a century. There’s nothing wrong with this per se (the doping, wage exploitation and other problems arose on their watch, after all), but they’re understandably upset to have control over a good source of income suddenly in the hands of a very isolated, very opaque group in a mountain stronghold, a thousand kilometers away.

And herein lies the root problem: the UCI’s regulatory authority stems solely from its affiliation with the International Olympic Committee. The IOC (an organization hardly known for integrity itself) has literally “blessed” the UCI as the only governing body for the world’s cycling events. When a race organizer asks “why”, the respons is “because the IOC says we can”.

As a result, the UCI simply is not set up to represent the interests of all the shareholders in cycling. While many of their extensive rule sets do seem carefully thought out, it’s an internal process. People from outside the UCI are indeed consulted—just not the ones who are likely to disagree. For example John Lelangue was a member of the radio earpiece working group in 2010, when his BMC squad’s ProTeam status just so happened to be under consideration. Should we chalk it up to coincidence that this meeting resulted in both a radio ban and guaranteed entries to all major events for Lelangue’s team?

And it’s not just radios. The UCI has seemed unable to come to terms with other groups on any number of issues. They sparred with the AFLD over dope controls at the Tour de France, and with teams on sponsor logo color choices in a sport where everything is covered in mud anyway. They’ve taken issue with seemingly meaningless equipment distinctions, and most prominently, fought with the Grand Tour organizers over control of races.

A House Divided

The last time the UCI/Organizer Schism reared its ugly head was in 2008, ostensibly over who had the right to invite teams to events. It wasn’t a new problem—the ASO, along with Giro organizer RCS and Vuelta organizer Unipublic, previously appeared ready to break with the governing body in 2005 and 2007 over similar issues.

But while it may look like the same old discussion, this time around the situation is different. For starters, the radio issue has pushed the teams and riders away from the UCI, who they (eventually) came around to supporting in ’05-’06. The Grand Tour Cartel also has the support of some of the few notable independent race organizers, including those responsible for the Tour of California—a race which, just two years ago, seemed aimed at stripping power from the Cartel by weakening the Giro.

Despite the forces of everyone else in the sport now arrayed against them, the UCI still refuses to acknowledge that this is about more than radios. Their response, an open letter from Pat McQuaid described, in too little detail and far too late, the process through which the radio ban was born. Using the doping issue when convenient (rider protests) and ignoring it when not (German TV rights), the letter comes across as a meandering populist appeal, meant to convince the disenfranchised that a ballot filed in spirit is as good as one filled out in fact.

In the past, compelling arguments have been made against a divided league. But times have changed. In 2007, the sport was still reeling from the first disqualification of a Tour winner since 1904, and coming to grips with the notion that (after seven very profitable years) addressing the doping problem head-on was better than sweeping it under the rug.

Four years and dozens of “bad for cycling” positives later, the sport still exists. The doping issue, while not solved, is actively prosecuted. There is no other sport that takes anti-doping as seriously as cycling, and as a result, there are more pressing problems—foremost among them, the inability of those who make their living in the sport to have a say in its future. And I think a split league may be the only way to guarantee that right.

The UCI needs to realize that other than IOC approval, it has no trump cards. All of the races that made cycling what it is today are the property of organizations it routinely fails to represent. Full-on rider bans—as threatened in 2008—simply won’t happen because, for better or for worse, cycling is the Tour de France. If decisions are either/or between the Olympics and the Tour, even the shut-ins at Aigle know which way the scales will tip.

Competition Means a Competitive Sport

Vaughters by kwcIn my eyes, the emerging situation—if everyone digs in their heels—is two separate, non-exclusive, season-long race circuits, one run by the UCI, and the other by a committee of those currently opposing the group—and I think that has the potential to be a very good thing for cycling.

The UCI will hopefully retain enough pull with emerging international races like the Tour of Poland and the Quebec one-days that most teams still fulfill the legal and ethical obligations laid down in its bylaws to retain eligibility. On the other circuit, freedom from the UCI rulebook will allow the competing races to experiment with new equipment, new race formats, and to invite teams to races based on performance during the season, instead of politics the previous fall.

The split format would also make an ostensibly-independent WADA an obvious choice to oversee and enforce doping regulations in both leagues—a huge step up from the currently inconsistent patchwork of national federations.

Hopefully, the direct comparison will allow everyone involved with or following the sport to see what rules matter, and what rules probably don’t, as well as provide an open and democratic testing ground on issues from equipment to contract negotiations. Additionally, competition between the two circuits would accelerate the adoption of positive changes, and as well hastening the demise of outdated rules. One only has to look at the runaway commercial success of American Football to see that a string of competing leagues have been very good for business.

This could be construed as a fairly rosy prediction, and one that seems downright ingenuous given the past history of The Grand Tour Cartel. But as I noted earlier, the major change this time around is that riders and teams are now the driver, with the entrenched European media oligarchs simply along for the ride.

I can’t imagine a savvy dealmaker like Jon Vaughters would blithely trade one set of dictators for another—but it wouldn’t be the first time in history that a revolution has been duped.

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