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Jan 15, 2015 – When final details of the UCI ProTour (now called the WorldTour) were being hammered out a dozen years ago, Tour de France owner Amaury Sport Organisation was very much closer to signing off on the revolutionary project than has ever been revealed. Following the ProTour’s soft launch in Liège on April 23, 2004 (see my last column “How the ProTour was created”), there were frequent meetings between UCI president Hein Verbruggen and ASO boss Patrice Clerc—who also represented AIOCC, the association of major race organizers. The two parties met formally on June 6 that summer to confirm that the ProTour would begin in 2005, and they met again three months later.
Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada
“We met for the last time on the 7th of September at the airport in Geneva,” Verbruggen, who’s 74 and fully retired from all sports organizations, told me earlier this month. “I remember that meeting very well. Patrice Clerc said, ‘Okay, we have an agreement now but I cannot confirm that to you because I’m leaving tomorrow for America to the US Open…but once I’m back I will confirm to you immediately our agreement.’”
Indeed, after returning from the tennis tournament in New York, Clerc (the former head of the French Open) did get back to the UCI with an agreement. Reading from the ASO letter, dated September 21, 2004, Verbruggen said, “After referring to our 7th of September meeting, the first sentence says, ‘Because the work of analyzing and studying the [ProTour] project cannot be rushed, we are ready at the end of the  project…to guarantee our collaboration with the UCI ProTour for the year 2006 also.’
“So he said [ASO] would participate not only in 2005—and we were in a hurry because the calendar was made in September—but we really have to see that it works, and so therefore let’s not do it over one year but let’s do it over two years. And I, of course, was very happy. Included with the letter was an agreement between them and us, made by the lawyers. And there’s a total of 15 pages in the contract, which I had to sign. That was written the 21st of September, 2004.
“And then two days later, the 23rd of September, comes suddenly a letter signed by Patrice Clerc, Angelo Zomegnan and Eduardo Franco that says we will not participate. It said: ‘We want to let you know of the cancelation of the unanimous positions of the organizers of the three grand tours who are very worried that you go too fast…and we haven’t got all the answers to our ethical questions and we do not want a closed system. We herby confirm that it is impossible for us to be associated with this project.’”
This decision, signed by the respective organizers of the Tour, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, came as a complete shock to the UCI’s Verbruggen. That’s because, in the months before, both race directors of the Giro (owned by RCS) and the Vuelta (owned by Unipublic) expressed enthusiasm for the ProTour; but just before the September 23 letter those directors, Carmine Castellano and Enrique Franco, retired, and were succeeded by Zomegnan and Eduardo “Tito” Franco respectively.
“Both Castellano and Enrique Franco were 100 percent behind the ProTour,” Verbruggen affirmed. “Castellano understood very well—and I was in the meeting with him—saying ‘If I can bundle the Giro with the Tour de France I’m going to make much more money.’ And not just the Giro, but also the other RCS races, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo and Lombardia. And so those guys were in favor [of the ProTour]. Then this unfortunate thing happens.”
There were only two days between ASO’s first letter containing the finished contract and the one rescinding the agreement. So what happened? Verbruggen understands that the day after the September 21 letter was sent there was “an internal meeting at ASO and at that meeting Mr. [Philippe] Amaury himself decided, ‘No, no, no, I still have questions…we cannot do this. We cannot sign.’ This was in fact a serious blow against Patrice Clerc and I think he felt ashamed. There he made his biggest mistake. He should have called me. We had everything done together. So after that meeting he must have contacted the other two organizers and told them not to participate.”
ASO is a subsidiary of the Amaury media group founded by Philippe Amaury’s father after World War II, with its major publications being the daily newspapers Le Parisien and L’Équipe. By 2004, ASO was in course of expansion. Besides owning the Tour, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours and two Belgian classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne, it had also acquired Paris-Nice and its first Middle East venture, the Tour of Qatar.
The Amaury family was (and is) extremely defensive of its properties, and the September 23 letter from Clerc to Verbruggen made it very clear that the top boss, Philippe Amaury, did not want to cede ASO’s 70-percent share of professional cycling’s television rights and put those revenues into a collective pot with the other ProTour races. At the time, French newspaper Libération quoted an insider as saying, “For the Amaury family, it was nothing more and nothing less than an attempt to steal its heritage.”
Those two September 2004 letters show how close the two organizations came to a solid agreement, and also why there was an ensuing battle—which has now been renewed by ASO’s pre-Christmas decision to withdraw all of its major races from the 2017 UCI WorldTour (current name of the ProTour). A temporary deal was made by ASO (and the other grand tour organizers) on December 1, 2004, putting back their collective 11 races into the 27-race ProTour for 2005. That same day, Clerc used Amaury’s Le Parisien newspaper as a mouthpiece to comment: “We’ve not become part of the ProTour…. We listened to the legitimate concerns of the teams and organizers, who could not continue with the uncertainty. It’s a temporary solution for 2005.”
I intended this week to take the story of the ASO-UCI battles through the stormy years from 2005 to 2008, but that will have to wait until next time.
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You can follow John on Twitter at @johnwilcockson.