UCI overhauls race calendar and introduces promotion and relegation
1st division of 16 teams, 8 in the 2nd, no overlap of races - but questions remain about how it will work
The UCI has revealed that it is to scrap the WorldTour and will instead introduce a three-tier system of promotion and relegation from the 2015 season onwards, with a first division of 16 teams, a second division of eight teams, and a third tier comprising the current continental tours.
World cycling’s governing body describes the changes, which are due to be fully in place by 2020 and will also result in a reduction of the racing calendar for top tier teams to 120 days – some 20 per cent less than the current 154 days – as “a profound and decisive change in the organisation of professional cycling.”
The UCI Management Committee and the Professional Cycling Council (PCC), whose members include race organisers, team managers and former riders, approved the new framework in a meeting at last month’s UCI Road World Championships in Florence.
New regulations are due to be submitted to the UCI Management Committee and the PCC in January next year for their approval.
The changes have been drawn up following a process that began with what the UCI describes as “Common Ground” meetings held in late 2011 and early 2012 and continued with the stakeholder consultation conducted by Deloitte in Spring this year as well as framework agreements on reform agreed in Naples in May.
Announcement of them was tucked away in the October 2013 issue of the UCI’s Sport and Technical bulletin.
Among issues outlined there are the number of teams in each tier, as well as the number of days they will race. The 16 first division teams will each race 120 days, while the eight second division teams will race 50 days each year.
Quite how that will work in practice in terms of invitations to top-tier events to ensure they meet that 50-day quota isn’t entirely clear at the moment; the UCI does say that there will be “no competition amongst first and second division events,” without specifying exactly what that means.
Currently, there are 18 WorldTour teams and 20 Professional Continental ones, giving a total of 38; that means that 14 teams would be consigned to the third tier and thereby miss out on the possibility of racing anywhere but at Continental level.
That’s particularly pertinent following a year in which MTN-Qhubeka’s Gerald Ciolek won Milan-Sanremo, while NetApp-Endura’s Leopold König won a stage in the Vuelta.
With the three Grand Tours also regularly giving wild card entries to domestic Professional Continental teams, and a similar situation happening with Belgian teams say during Classics season, the likelihood is that some outfits that do get a moment in the spotlight in their home countries each year – also, important to their sponsors – will miss out.
Whether race organisers such as Tour de France owners ASO will push to ensure French teams still get a place in that race, for example, is also a consideration.
However, the new structure should at least lead to a more transparent system of teams moving into or out of the top flight based on sporting criteria – although ethical, financial and administrative factors will continue to be taken into account too.
Also, there will be a sweeping reform of the racing calendar itself – something the UCI has been studying ever since the threat of a breakaway league arose, a prospect that in large part has led to these planned changes.
Those include the season running from February to October; currently, the WorldTour starts with the Tour Down Under in January, but it’s too early to tell whether that means the race would retain its top tier status and move to a later date, or whether it would drop down.
There will also be no overlap between races as currently happens, perhaps most noticeably, with Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. Some other WorldTour races also clash, for example the Critérium du Dauphiné ends on the same weekend the Tour de Suisse begins, while recently added Canadian races in Montreal and Quebec conflict with the Vuelta.
One effect of the new rules is therefore likely to be a reduction in team size, both in terms of number of riders and support staff, since they won’t have to ride two races at once, and it could also ease budgetary pressures slightly for example through allowing a reduction in support vehicle fleet size.
But smaller squads also means that teams may have to be more selective in the minor races they target.
At the moment, it’s not unusual for a major team to take part in three races concurrently, but fewer riders and inevitable injuries mean that may be impossible in future.
Sponsors may target the markets where they will get most return – Sky in the Tour of Britain, for example, or Belkin targeting races in the US, currently without a WorldTour event.
That in turn may have implications for lower ranked races such as the Tour of Britain, which last month missed out on UCI HC status, one tier below WorldTour level, for 2014, if top-flight teams choose not to race it.
While that 20 per cent cut in race days at what is currently WorldTour level is likely to see some races fall by the wayside, much of it will be achieved through cutting the length of races (other than the Grand Tours) to “5 or 6 days” with races such as the Tour de Suisse, which took place over nine days this year, looking set to be shortened.
Races will take place “over all weekends and in particular on Sundays,” meaning that Tuesday or Wednesday are likely to become the start days for many stage races. Last year, Giro d’Italia organisers RCS Sport moved the two major races still held on a Saturday – Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia – to take place on a Sunday instead.
The Spring Classics will also become a prime focus of the first half of the season, with the UCI promising “six weeks of uninterrupted competition” focused on the events, which could have implications for the two Spanish stage races that currently sit alongside them – the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, and the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco.
For now, there do seem to be benefits and drawbacks.
On the plus side, TV scheduling will be easier, which will be attractive to sponsors, and the season should have more of a narrative aspect to it, and the racing burden on top-flight teams will be reduced, something they have been calling for.
Against that, however, it looks like teams further down the pecking order may struggle, especially ones that have relied on a brief spell in the spotlight each year by securing wild card entries to their biggest domestic races, and events not in the top tier may suffer as they become less attractive to broadcasters and other sponsors.
What we can say is the full implications of the changes won’t become apparent until the new regulations become public some time early in 2013. They will be scrutinised closely, and we will also find out whether any parties feeling that the changes act to their detriment seek to mount a legal challenge to them.