WILCOCKSON-ASO-UCI DISPUTE: How the ProTour was created

Jan 8, 2015 – I explained in last week’s column how the two principal factions in professional cycling, ASO and the UCI, developed in diverging directions through the 1980s and ’90s. Tour de France owner ASO proudly defended its French heritage while slowly becoming the sport’s most dominant commercial entity.

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Jan 8, 2015 – I explained in last week’s column how the two principal factions in professional cycling, ASO and the UCI, developed in diverging directions through the 1980s and ’90s. Tour de France owner ASO proudly defended its French heritage while slowly becoming the sport’s most dominant commercial entity. At the same time, cycling’s governing body, the UCI, grew from a small bureaucratic organization into a modern nonprofit that, by 2002, had its own multi-million-dollar headquarters and was about to launch an all-encompassing plan for elite cycling.

Words by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

The plan was headlined by the UCI ProTour—which would replace the UCI’s Road World Cup and World Rankings with “all the top races contested by all the top teams”—but it would also include separate calendars for every continent (Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania), re-categorization of every UCI-sanctioned event and a three-tier breakdown in teams (ProTour, ProContinental and Continental). Perhaps the most important long-term benefit for the sport was that an independent panel would assess which teams met the strict financial, sporting and ethical requirements to be included in the ProTour.

These wide-ranging reforms took years in the making, starting with UCI president Hein Verbruggen’s goal of transforming the governing body from its Victorian roots into an international federation worthy of the 21st century. Each aspect of the modernization plan had to go through endless meetings of the various UCI commissions and committees—with perhaps the most important one being the Road Commission, which since 1997 was chaired by Irishman Pat McQuaid. McQuaid’s background as a professional bike racer, national coach and race organizer (managing major stage races in Britain, Ireland, Malaysia and the Philippines) made him an ideal official to help develop the sport’s globalization.

On the organizational side, Verbruggen delegated much of the detail work to Swiss citizen Alain Rumpf, a fulltime UCI employee since 1994, who was initially the coordinator of the UCI’s road cycling unit—overseeing the international road calendar and team registration process, introducing the women’s World Cup and their world rankings system, and supervising the road cycling events at the 2000 Olympics. After the Sydney Games he became the coordinator of the Professional Cycling Council—which was set up by the UCI management committee “to undertake the creation of a modern and efficient structure responsible for managing the leading-edge sector of the sport.”

womens worlds lizzie armitstead

The PCC—whose mission “is to guarantee a balance between all the parties involved in cycling by respecting the culture of professionalism, the roots of which run very deep”—had 12 founding members, including Verbruggen, former pro racers Felice Gimondi, Miguel Induráin, Olaf Ludwig, Charly Mottet and Francesco Moser, pro team directors Walter Godefroot, Jim Ochowicz and Manolo Saiz, and grand tour race directors Carmine Castellano (Giro d’Italia) and Jean-Marie Leblanc (Tour de France). In other words, much of the input came from recently retired racers, the pro teams and the two biggest race promoters. Among the nine working parties set up by the PCC were those dealing with race safety, rider workloads, rankings, calendar, television and new media.

Plans for the ProTour would be developed by the PCC over the next two to three years. Ironically, in the context of battles to come, ASO’s Leblanc was one of the architects for globalizing the sport—a goal inherited from the Tour’s previous director Jacques Goddet. Leblanc had been running the Tour since 1989 and his steady hand guided ASO through the 1990s after a failed initial attempt at international expansion in the ’80s (see last week’s column: “Origins of the ASO-UCI clashes”). With greater stability and increasing revenues from television rights, ASO was strong enough to take over the organization of two financially ailing Belgian classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1990 and the Flèche Wallonne in 1993, the first non-French races to be added to its portfolio of bike races.

Part of the reasons for forming the PCC (and the eventual ProTour) was the dire effects of the 1998 Tour de France, where the world’s No. 1-ranked team, Festina, was thrown off the race for its admitted system of supplying team members with EPO and other banned drugs—and the later withdrawal of several other teams protesting the French police’s rough handling of riders on other teams suspected of cheating. Race director Leblanc (and the French nation) was hugely embarrassed by the Festina Affair, especially as national hero Richard Virenque was at the center of a storm that pushed the Tour (and professional cycling) to the edge of credibility.

July 1992  79th Tour de France VIRENQUE Richard (FRA) R.M.O. Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA / Slide

As a result of that disastrous ’98 Tour, French cycling was at its lowest ebb and ASO was looking to rebuild its reputation, particularly in the field of anti-doping, to retain its sponsors and improve its financial strength in an era of expanding television fees. As a result, in October 2000, ASO hired a new director general, Patrice Clerc. He’d replace former ski superstar Jean-Claude Killy, who’d been with ASO for a dozen years. Clerc proved the ideal man for the job, coming off a 15-year stint as director of the highly successful Roland-Garros tennis tournament, one of the four Grand Slam events.

Clerc was still getting to know the “new” world of cycling when the UCI’s PCC was getting off the ground. The Tour (and ASO) was still a very much French-oriented entity when the ProTour project was taking shape. Both Leblanc and Castellano, his counterpart at the Giro (owned by the RCS group that also owned Italy’s major sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, similar to ASO’s ownership of L’Équipe in France), could see benefits of better structured international teams and a hierarchy of those teams competing in all the major races. For instance, in 2002, the Giro was contested by 21 teams, 12 of which were Italian (most of them second rate), with only eight top teams from elsewhere; and the Tour had six French teams and 13 top teams from elsewhere. The ASO and RCS race directors also saw advantages in all the top teams competing in their other major events.

Behind the scenes at the UCI, as the PCC coordinator, Rumpf was still managing the international calendar of 250 races and overseeing the annual registration of the world’s 70 pro teams, and by the end of 2002 he had implemented the financial audit procedure for pro teams with UK-based Ernst & Young—which would be one of the key reforms of the coming ProTour. In early 2003 Rumpf became the UCI’s professional cycling manager, when he helped put together all the elements that were needed before the ProTour could be placed on the agenda of the UCI’s annual congress later that year. This included evaluating the teams and events that would be candidates to be on the ProTour, preparing the new rules and regulations, and setting up an internal project team to eventually run the ProTour—if it were accepted by the world’s 170 member federations.

That October 2003 congress, approving the UCI ProTour plan, took place in Hamilton, Ontario, during the world road championships hosted by the Canadian city. Ironically, that vote didn’t get a huge amount of publicity, partly because it was overshadowed by the news that Canadian Olympian Geneviève Jeanson, favored to win the women’s road race gold medal, tested above the 47-percent hematocrit level then used to indicate use of EPO.

So the true coming-out party for the ProTour came in April 2004, the day before the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic (organized by ASO!) at the medieval Palais des Princes-Évêques in Liège, Belgium. At this historic launch of the UCI ProTour, there was general enthusiasm from the media and team directors in attendance, and I still remember chatting with ASO’s Leblanc, who saw this as an important landmark in the globalization of pro cycling.

UCI president Verbruggen said that he saw the ProTour as an integral part of the UCI’s expansion, grouping all the world’s major races into a package that eventually could be sold to the highest-bidding television networks—much like the IOC sells the Olympics, FIFA sells the World Cup, or UEFA sells the Champions League. The initial plan was for 20 ProTeams to compete in a program of 28 ProTour races—including all the major races run by ASO. Both of these goals proved to be at the heart of ASO director general Clerc’s later objections to Verbruggen’s plans.


Next week, I’ll continue this story, taking it through the stormy years from 2005 to 2008, and through to the current deadlock signaled by ASO’s recent decision to withdraw all of its race from the 2017 UCI WorldTour (as the ProTour is now titled).

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You can follow John on Twitter at @johnwilcockson.

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