The UCI has announced that it is involved in plans to shake up the road cycling calendar as part of a wider reform of the sport through a proposed ‘Champions League’ joint venture with Zdenek Bakala, the Czech billionaire owner of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, and his business partner, Bessel Kok.
The governing body appears to have been forced to go public about its involvement after Bakala outlined the proposals in a round-table press conference in Brussels on Friday to which a dozen journalists were invited.
There, Bakala outlined plans that would include a new series of races, the sharing of TV revenue, greater transparency in the fight against doping and an overhaul of the points and raking systems.
He acknowledged however that to date no discussions had been held with ASO, organiser of the Tour de France and other major races including Paris-Nice, Paris Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, which also owns a significant stake in the Vuelta, or RCS Sport, which owns the Giro d’Italia, Milan-San Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro di Lombardia, among others.
With the sport clearly at a crossroads in the wake of the Lance Armstrong affair and likely to be hit by further high profile allegations of doping as well as money laundering through the Padua investigation in Italy, support of all stakeholders would appear vital to the success of any planned reform of the sport, and it is difficult to envisage long-lasting changes without the backing of ASO and RCS.
In an exclusive interview with road.cc in July, UCI President Pat McQuaid had said that the organisation had been involved in discussions with some of the people behind the proposed World Series Cycling breakaway league project, and just last month it was reported that the governing body had been offered a stake in the initiative.
At Friday’s press conference, Bakala made it clear that the Champions League project is distinct from World Series Cycling, however the UCI has confirmed that it has been in discussions with him and Kok since late 2011.
Speaking about the initiative in a video posted to YouTube by Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Bakala made it clear that the Belgium-based outfit was not acting alone and that “a number of professional cycling teams and myself as an investor” as well as the UCI had reached agreement “on the formation of a new company that will operate and promote a number of cycling races and hopefully allow us and the UCI to reform certain aspects of the sport going forward.”
He added that any changes “would be phased in over a period of several years, so it is not a replacement of an old system by something new, it is an integration of existing races into a new format.”
In a statement released yesterday evening in response to press reports about the potential initiative, the UCI confirmed that it had “signed a Memorandum of Understanding with them as the initial investors in the joint venture and will now enter into extensive dialogue with the teams and race organisers before any final agreement is concluded.”
Only on Wednesday, the governing body had announced that it was launching a consultation with stakeholders in the sport about how to go forward, although it made no mention at the time of being involved in discussions that would radically reform cycling, meaning that parties not involved in the Champions League proposals could potentially have been drawing up their input to the consultation in the dark, unaware of what was going on behind the scenes.
That's not an ideal situation for the UCI to allow to happen at a time when it is being urged to be transparent about its activities and faces the scrutiny of an independent commission it has itself ordered into its activities in the fallout of the Armstrong scandal.
In yesterday's statement, the UCI cautioned that “no agreement has been reached on the reforms that will take place to the calendar and as such any media reports about the future of the calendar are pure speculation at this stage,” going on to say that “the UCI will retain full control over the calendar, including sporting and technical elements.
“The UCI and the investors are also committed to ensuring that the final structure of the joint venture will avoid conflicts of interest,” it added.
UCI President Pat McQuaid commented: “Improving the professional road cycling calendar for spectators, cyclists, teams, organisers and sponsors is a priority for the UCI.
“Cycling is one of the world’s most popular sports and we are committed to take this to an even higher level.
“In Zdenek Bakala and Bessel Kok we have cycling fans who have already done much for the sport but who want to invest further.
“That demonstrates the confidence they have in cycling and we are keen to partner with them and others. We look forward to making a formal announcement on this as soon as possible next year.”
In a post on the Omega Pharma-Quick Step website following Friday’s press conference, Bakala said: “Cycling has enormous potential, it’s a fantastic sport which I’m really passionate about. This is why I’ve decided to invest in a new project aimed at improving this world.”
The team outlined what it called a ‘three-pronged approach’ to reform of cycling.
The first is the struggle against doping with the purpose of having a strict policy with streamlined procedures that will lead to quicker judgements.
The second involves financial stability in the cycling system, which necessarily relies on the financial stability of the teams.
The third addresses the need for clear, precise rules that we can count on and work with.
“Our system needs these changes in order to gain credibility and growth, in addition to a series of further steps like technological development in cycling and a change in the system that assigns points and team licenses,” continued Bakala.
“The public needs to be able to identify with a cycling culture that has clear rules and regulations, with a system of races and classifications that is easy to understand. The teams need stability, with a licensing system that allows them to work towards medium and long-term goals and build branded teams that fans can easily recognise.”
He added that the ‘Champions League’ project “would be a new format, easy for the public, media, sponsors and broadcasters to understand.
“In reality it wouldn’t be a radical change that would happen in a short period of time, rather it would be a gradual process of change through dialogue with other components of our sport which in a few years could bring cycling to the next level. Having the top teams, with the top riders, in the best races. That’s the goal.
“Passion for this sport has prompted me first to invest in the team and now to develop this project,” he added. “I love challenges and this is one that I hope will bring results to everyone in the cycling world.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.