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By John Wilcockson
UCI president Hein Verbruggen, road committee chief Pat McQuaid and cyclo-cross committee chair Sylvia Schenk emerged from an all-day session of the UCI management committee on Friday evening to reveal large-scale changes to both the world road-racing and cyclo-cross calendars, while Verbruggen made a scathing appraisal of the current doping situation in cycling.
The most far-reaching proposals concern the much-trumpeted UCI Pro Tour that will start in 2005. McQuaid confirmed that only 20 teams will compete on this circuit, which replaces both the UCI World Cup and UCI world rankings system. Instead, points (and big prizes) will be awarded at each of the initial 20-or-so races. These will include all three grand tours, the one-day classics, and major stage races, and will likely start each year with Paris-Nice in March.
To accommodate the new competition, the other UCI-sanctioned races will be categorized as Above-category, Class 1 and Class 2 events. Points scored in these other categories will only count toward five separate Continental series in Europe, America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. The 20 Pro Tour teams will also be allowed to compete in the Above-category and Class 1 events.
Although the initial years of the Pro Tour will be contested entirely in Europe, McQuaid said that races in other continents won’t be ruled out. “A race would have to be very big to get on the Pro Tour,” he said, “because all the teams would have to be flown there, which is very expensive.” He also pointed out that the organizers of the Pro Tour races will have to pay a high registration fee (yet to be determined).
There will be an elevated fee to obtain one of the 20 Pro Tour team licenses, and this could rule out certain teams competing even if they finish among the top 20 ranked teams at the end of 2004. Also, teams will have to have a minimum of 25 riders on their rosters and will have to compete in ALL of the Pro Tour events.
These means that a team like U.S. Postal will have to compete in the Giro d’Italia, as well as the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, along with all the major stages races like Paris-Nice, Dauphiné Libéré and Tour of Switzerland, and one-day classics.
“There are three main reasons why we’re introducing this new system,” said McQuaid. “First, we want to end situations like the one with Mario Cipollini, who hasn’t been able to ride the Tour. If his team is on the Pro Tour, the Tour organizers have no choice in accepting his participation. The Pro Tour will also end the situation where teams (like Phonak this year) don’t know exactly which races they can ride, such as the Tour.
“Second, we want the top riders to compete in more races — instead of say Lance Armstrong only riding 34 days of racing each year. Like Hein Verbruggen said, we want to encourage vedettes, like Bettini and Zabel, who race all year long.
“Third, the Tour de France has too much influence in the sport of cycling right now. It’s great what they have done for cycling, but it’s become too dominant. The Pro Tour will even things out a little.”
McQuaid explained that it will still be up to the teams to choose which riders they use in each race. But because of the prestige of the Pro Tour having a team winner as well as an individual champion (who will wear a distinctive jersey throughout the season, even in the Tour de France), with major prizes to be won, Verbruggen and McQuaid said that teams will be encouraged to use their best riders more often than they do in the current system.
There are other positive and negatives in the new system. Races like the Giro and Vuelta will now be guaranteed the participation of the world’s top 20 teams, but that will mean fewer Italian teams starting the Giro, and fewer Spanish squads at the Vuelta.
The Pro Tour team licenses will be issued for four-year periods. This means that should any team lose its sponsor, or should it not be able to pay for 25 riders and a license, it would be able to “sell” the license to a new team. This will operate somewhat like the system in American pro sports, where a franchise can be sold to a different city.
Look for a further report on the UCI congress later in the day, with details of the new cyclo-cross competition starting next winter and Verbruggen’s comments on current drug problems.