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Velon CEO Graham Bartlett has a long history in sport, working with companies such as UEFA and Nike and previously acting as commercial director for Liverpool Football Club. He heads up the new group unveiled yesterday that currently represents 11 UCI WorldTour teams and is pushing for big changes in the sport.
In part I of this interview, Bartlett fielded questions on the group’s goals and finances, spoke about the teams who have not yet signed up and discussed some of the technology already employed such as on-bike cameras and whether that footage could become a revenue stream.
He also talked about Velon’s dealings with the AIGCP, the UCI plus Tour de France organiser ASO, who many anticipate could be the group’s biggest challenge.
In part II of this interview below, Bartlett gives his opinion on a range of topics, including the UCI’s proposal to restructure the sport, its plan to cut down on team sizes and race days, and anti-doping matters such as Garmin-Sharp’s previous call for higher investment in the biological passport by teams.
He also discusses the internal rules that Velon teams have agreed to and the variable mechanism it follows to reach agreements on important matters.
CyclingTips: One of the big talking points at the moment is the UCI’s proposal for the restructuring of the sport? For example, there are plans to cut down the size of teams; you could then end up with a lot of riders unemployed. What is your relation to those plans – is Velon pushing for changes to what the UCI is proposing?
Graham Bartlett: Well, the UCI’s stakeholder reform process is a complicated and difficult model. They have got a very difficult job to do. Cycling is a beautifully complicated sport. We are working with the AIGCP to put forward the interests of the teams and our teams within that.
In terms of the number of riders, there are people better qualified than me to assess and analyse that within our group. You look at the fantastic directeur sportifs and people like Bjarne Riis, Patrick Lefevere, Dave Brailsford and Iwan Spekenbrink – all these guys can answer this question much better than I can.
From my side, I would say only that in relation to the number of riders in a team, you first have to decide how many races they are going to ride and how many races there are in the WorldTour that you have to go to. I think the number of riders is a function of that and obviously that is part of the reform, trying to make the calendar more coordinated, trying to make it more effective and have less overlapping races and maybe a shorter number of race days as well.
So I think one is a function of the other, but people more qualified than me in Velon can answer that.
CT: Do you have a position on the length of the Grand Tours?
GB: I think the important thing really is this: how can we create a season-long narrative? At the moment it doesn’t join up. You want something that has a beginning, a middle and an end, that fans can really follow. Not just the existing fans, but new fans coming into the sport. They want to see that season-long story.
I think that is the key. I don’t think the issue is about how long a Grand Tour is, how long a stage race is, how many one days do you have or not. For me and the Velon teams, the starting point is how do we sit down and create a season-long story, and how does that then create a lot more economic stability for the teams. Because we are generating a story that people want to follow that is a lot easier for people to understand and invest in.
That is the key to this for us, not about how many days there are in a Grand Tour. To be honest, that is something for the people who own those races to comment on more than me, really.
CT: You have mentioned improving credibility. The doping aspect is something that has been damaging to the credibility of the sport. Do you as a group have initiatives that you want to bring in as regards to making that area more credible?
GB: No one team or one group can solve that with any proposal, really. I think it is an all-party, all-stakeholder effort that is required there. I think that is the first thing to say. The Velon group support what the UCI is trying to do in terms of changing things, improving things, making things better. I think what we have got an obligation on with our members is that we have got this new group, this company, and what they can do is they can share best practice amongst themselves to really improve how they take things forward in that area.
It is not about another set of rules or another set of directives or anything like that, because there is already quite a few of those and they are quite complicated as it is. I think we will leave that to the governing bodies and the WADAs and so on to tell us where we should go in that direction.
I think over time all the teams have got views on how to move things forward. But what this group can do is to help those members to actually see from each other, ‘well, this is the best practice in this area. That is the best way of doing this,’ and so on. That is something that is quite interesting. It hasn’t happened before. In the past the team has always had to deal with a very difficult area on its own, and that is quite hard.
If you could actually share with like-minded teams and say, ‘look, what was the answer to that, and how did that work for you?’ It is a real benefit to them and they are very keen to explore how they can do more than that.
I think the other thing that is really important about this is that the principles that they have agreed within Velon are the ones that they have set in rules for themselves about membership. They have set very strong standards around that and they have accepted their own rules. As you can imagine, if someone doesn’t live up to them, then they would be removed from that group. You can’t do a joint venture when you are partnered with somebody who is not living up to the same standards that they have set for themselves.
CT: Are these standards going to be made public? For example, the MPCC has a set of rules, such as saying if a team has three positives, it is suspended from racing for a certain amount of time. Will those standards be published by Velon, or are they being kept quiet?
GB: It is not that they are being kept quiet. There is a relatively simple set of rules and regulations around what the shareholders’ agreement says. But we are not going to make the shareholders’ agreement public in that sense. This is not another MPCC, because the MPCC does what it is does. Some of our members are members of that and some are not.
It is not about creating a whole new set of rules and regulations that people have to abide by and putting those out there, because I think that would just confuse things and sets people up against each other. That is not what we are about. So no, we are not going in that direction with this.
CT: Jonathan Vaughters has argued that teams should put a greater proportion of their budget into the biological passport. Is this a subject of communication between the group, that maybe they will move in that direction to agree to help the credibility by doing that?
GB: I can’t say that particular issue has been widely discussed. I know Jonathan’s thoughts on it and I think they are shared by a number of teams, but it is not something that the Velon group have focussed on, no. So I can’t say that would be…I wouldn’t rule it out, but at this stage it hasn’t been deeply discussed.
I think the things we have to focus on right now is how we get this new business model to take care of longer term stability, because that does feed into a more credible sport. Look at any reports or analysis – if the business model doesn’t work and the teams aren’t stable, then you have got a harder job to move forward and away from anti-doping. You have got a harder job to get rid of that culture, which is something Jonathan has been very strong on.
So that is the main focus for the business, that is how it can best serve this area rather than issuing another set of rules or issuing statements on how you fund the ABP [athlete biological passport – ed.]. That would be a separate issue more likely to be dealt with by the UCI and WADA.
CT: You have 11 members now. How do you reach agreements – is it majority rule and the others accept the decision?
GB: It depends on the deal. Different deals require different levels of consent from our shareholders, as with any business. You have got certain things that you can pass by a majority, certain things are unanimous, and certain things don’t need a majority.
It depends on the deal and what the deal calls for. There are a lot of rights that are already in the company, that it can go an act and do things on simple majority and there are others that actually call for a higher level of unanimity. But the mechanisms are all built into the company, so they are pretty easy to trigger. You don’t have to spend months and months to get somebody to buy in again into the deal. Once you are in a company and your rights are in a company, then that company can act; subject to the goals the shareholders place on it, obviously.
I think there is a really good opportunity here. We want to partner with people; this is not about anything other than partnership and collaboration. I think if you come together as a group, there is a lot of things you can do that you can’t do individually.
On-bike cameras is an easy example. If you do that on your own, you can’t make that work. If you do it as a group of 11 strong teams, you really can. You absolutely can bring that together. And then you can bring something to the fans that they actually really want. It only works on the basis that you group it together.
I think the teams have got a fantastic opportunity now and they have been working hard on this a long time. They are very, very keen to make sure that it succeeds and goes in the right direction. So that is the plan.