World Series Cycling

you can read all about the proposed World Series Cycling project here, and i’m going to assume that if you’re reading this you’ve already read that report or the others doing the rounds in the cycling media. instead i’m going to look at the comments made by Jonathan Price of the Gifted Group (who have joined with Zdenek Bakala, owner of the Omega Pharma team) in that interview by Cycling News.

Price: There is also a big demand for this sort of product with the broadcast community and with sponsors. I think there’s a balance to be struck between the sort of process that you need to go through in a proper sport and also responding to the requirements of the market. Because ultimately, if you don’t respond to the requirements of the market then you die.

that last sentence is true but what i get from this interview is an overriding concern for ‘what the marketplace wants’ without any single mention of the fan. just as the UCI has ridden roughshod over the people that flock in droves to watch top-level races and gather round screens for the big classics, the Grand Tours and the Worlds, i get the feeling that the WSC group are doing the same. where in this interview does Price consider what the fan wants?

CN: What about the current race organizers, are they in danger?

Price: I don’t think so. Firstly, we’ve spoken to RCS [Giro d’Italia and Giro di Lombardia], we’ve spoken to Wouter Vandenhaute [Flanders Classics], we’ve spoken to Heineken and Leo van Vliet [Amstel Gold Race]. I don’t want to put words in their mouths but none of them have responded negatively.

‘I don’t think so’ is just not good enough. cycling is built on races such as these that are mentioned by Price. before announcing these plans wouldn’t it have been better to sort that out? there are 8 teams in this WSC league but no Team Sky, no Astana, no BMC, no Orica et cetera. how do they intend to make that work? will the WSC teams be allowed to race every Monument, despite the fact that they may no have time in their schedule to race Paris-Nice, San Sebastien, Paris-Tours and so on? is that fair to the organisers of the smaller classics and tours, which, it has to be said, are often struggling even now. and to say that ‘none of them have responded negatively’ – well of course not. if you turn up with a folder with the names of 8 of the world’s biggest teams in it, the organisers will have to listen.

perhaps the WSC and Price have taken all this into consideration, but i don’t see any evidence of this. one other thing about the proposed format is this: they intend to crown the overall winner of the series as the World Champion. so if we have two rival factions do we get two world champions? or, if all the teams eventually go to the WSC, do we do away with the Worlds?

Price: We will keep the commercial rights to the races that we set up but we need event organizers. If you look at ASO, RCS, Wouter, Leo… They are all highly experienced race organizers. I see us working with them and making good business out of organizing these races.

money talks. i fully agree that the teams should share some of the media revenue from the televised races, as in other sports. that should have begun years ago, with a certain percentage going to the teams, another to anti-doping research, and perhaps a slice filtering down to national training schemes in developing countries. ‘making good business’ means making good money, and that’s been at the root of the problems in cycling since the early 90s with the UCI, when Verbruggen got his license to drive the Gravy Train. the sport became more corrupt than ever, as did many of the officials, managers and riders.

Price: I don’t think anyone’s talking about participating in any races or trying to damage them.

Price is speaking here about smaller races, though, as i wrote above, i think this damage will be inevitable, because if, as WSC propose, you have ten new 4-day events, riders will be tired and no longer interested in riding smaller events, no matter how famous or prestigious the event. also, if races like San Sebastien aren’t included in the newly proposed series, there’ll be no points on offer from the WSC league and thus even less incentive to race outside the league. one other thing is this: let’s say that the WSC gets off the ground with just these 8 teams, and the UCI and established race organisers cave in and allow these guys to race Paris-Roubaix, for instance. if Sky, BMC etc aren’t in the league we’re going to have two races in one, and potentially a ‘real winner’ who is outside the WSC with the top WSC rider ranked within their series as their ‘winner’.

that is utterly preposterous and makes no sense – unless of course, the WSC hopes that all the other teams will jump aboard their ship. in many ways this all does feel like an attempt at a fait accompli. gather a number of teams, speak to organizers, start to set up their own circuit, then go to the UCI and finally the other teams and say ‘well, you’re either with us or you’re done.’

Price: Two of the initiatives which are in the documents included support for a competition for emerging riders. We recognize we have an obligation to develop talent in the sport. We’d also like to see a parallel women’s series. I think, it’s a widely recognized fact now that there needs to be an equality in sports. Women’s sports have advanced rapidly in the past 20 years. We need to make sure we’re looking after 50 per cent of the population [laughs]. You don’t have to do that in a paternal sense. You look at the quality of the product they produce. Look at the Olympic road race. In my country there’s a huge level of support for the women’s cyclists in Great-Britain. That it’s different in other countries? It has to change.

fully agreed, but if ‘competition for emerging riders’ means something like the White Jersey of the Tour then that’s nothing new. if he means a separate league for younger riders, say 18-22, then this could be interesting but logistically near-impossible. where will these races be held? who will pay for it all? will the riders be professionals or amateurs?

as for the comments on women’s racing i agree, they need more support, and the WSC plans could work for women’s cycling, which doesn’t have the same traditional roots as men’s road racing. in fact, i think the best thing that could happen to women’s cycling would be for all the female pros to breakaway from the UCI, who has so woefully under-supported them up to now. it’s incorrect to call women’s cycling a ‘new sport’ but in many ways it feels like one at the current time. why not run this WSC project for women’s cycling first, then get back to us a few years later after you’ve shown it’s viable?

Cycling News: Isn’t there a conflict of interest with Bakala [owner of Omega Pharma- QuickStep] being both an investor and competitor?

Price: There’s a clear distinction in this regard between QuickStep the team and Zdenek Bakala the investor. He has a whole host of business interests other than QuickStep. Without being disrespectful to QuickStep I think they’re significantly bigger. I think the idea that as an investor he would try to look after the interests of his team is ironious [sic]. I also think as well that there are a whole host of ways when you set up a company and put together a business that you can ensure that those conflicts of interests don’t arise, in terms of people who sit on boards, in terms of shareholder agreements. I think he very well understands that. I’m confident that we’ll put in place some very practical solutions to prevent that from arising.

“I think the idea that as an investor he would try to look after the interests of his team is ironious [sic].” how so? it’s more like an inevitable conclusion. you have a powerful businessman pumping millions into the WSC and his team riding in it, yet that isn’t a conflict of interests? and these practical solutions to prevent that from arising – we need more than that, Mr. Price, now it the time to explain.

Price: We want to work with the UCI.

why? Bakala is putting something like 20 million euro into this, why risk it all with the very organisation that has steered the sport onto the rocks? a cooperation with a UCI without McQuaid is maybe more palatable, but there’s no sign that WSC will join the voices that are asking McQuaid to step down.

Cycling News: Who will run the doping testing?

Price: The way we see it happening is all through UCI. They are the regulator of the sport. They make the sporting and technical regulations. We’re not seeking any change in that. We’ve made a clear commitment to them that we understand that and that we want to work within it. There are a lot of people out there who said a lot of negative things about the UCI. Firstly, it’s easy to comment on a federation but a lot harder to run one. Secondly, there has always been a financial limit on their anti-doping program. I’m sure that if you asked Pat McQuaid he would like an unlimited budget for his anti-doping program.

cue raised eyebrows. if you’re not seeking any change in the fact that the UCI is responsible for the doping regulations and testing procedures then what’s the point? and Price is sure that the Big Mac would like an unlimited budget for anti-doping? i wouldn’t be so sure about that…

Price: [discussing the ten race, four day tour format] It will have a proper global broadcast platform. It will have the best riders in every race. A lot of them currently don’t. If you want to see the best cyclists go head to head throughout the series this is the way to see it. That’s fundamentally what it’s about.

but at least ten World Tour teams haven’t signed on. isn’t that a bit premature? and where will they be racing exactly? in China, where races like the Tour of Beijing flop? in Japan, where you will certainly make money but very few outside the country will be interested?

Cycling News:  I think I already know who the best sprinter, climber, time trialist or best rider on a rolling stage is. Why do I need the WSC for that?

Price: You say that everybody knows who the best time trialist is but how do you actually recognize him? The best time trialist didn’t participate in the world championships this year. Again, it’s about that coherent championships structure and having a proper narrative throughout the season that the sport follows. You say everybody knows who the best time trialist is and a keen cycling follower does but the average sportsfan doesn’t. An awful lot of people out there who have heard of Bradley Wiggins, who have heard of Mark Cavendish but if you asked them to provide you with a lucid explanation of who’s the best at what they struggled to explain it to you.

this isn’t what cycling is about at all. look at the current world ranking system, the vast majority of fans aren’t bothered about who is the ‘world #1’. the sport is built on the ups and downs, on the iconic hills and cobbles, and riders are judged not only on wins or points, but on deeds and courage. these proposed 4 day races, with a mountain stage, a flat stage, a TT and a rolling stage just sound terribly dull. you can’t turn cycling into baseball with its seemingly endless rotation of near-pointless games, where fans obsess over numbers. it’s not that i don’t want the sport to appeal to new fans, i most certainly do, but this whole enterprise smacks of men trying to package something to make money. i don’t get the sense that the best interests of the sport, the riders nor the fans are at the heart of this.

furthermore, Price talks about building something new but with teams like Saxo-Tinkoff and Radioshack and in there, not much is new. on top of that they talk of doing this all with the UCI and of letting them control dope testing, which is how we go here in the first place. the sport doesn’t need a new format, it needs to clean up its act, change the leadership, and to talk to the organizers of the top races about funneling money back into the sport.

all this comes at a curious time, with so much going on. i can’t help but wonder if Greg Lemond’s announcement that he will challenge McQuaid for the UCI leadership has something to do with it all. I can’t see the three-time Tour winner being too in favor of the proposals that WSC have out forward, but i can see McQuaid going for it if it means he survives in the driving seat at the UCI – and if it fills their coffers, naturally.

what do the sponsors want? i’d say most have no complaint with the format of the current WorldTour, but they do have a problem with the incessant stream of doping cases. take those out of the equation and you have happy sponsors once again. but create a new format with the same people in charge of the UCI and with ex-dopers in influential positions on teams and you’re back at square one. Pierce talks of 4 million euro a year set  aside for the WSC’s anti-doping system which is quite a honeypot, but then talks of leaving the management of it to the racoons.

and what of the fans? what do they want? i’m not going to speak for others, but i know what i want. i want a sport i can believe in and riders i can trust. i want a world governing body that is transparent and not run for personal gain nor guided by ego and selfishness and the cult of personality. i want an anti-doping system that starts at the grass roots with education and finishes with suspensions and financial penalties that truly deter doping. i want all those who have doped and are in management to get out. and i want races to live and die by their popularity but for those at the very top to let the wealth trickle down, so that the cultural history and traditions that make this sport what it is, remain.

i don’t want ‘plastic’ races. i don’t want a system that needs McQuaid to stay in power for it to work. and i don’t want our World Champion to be decided by metronomic consistency.

it it a lot to ask for? no. it’s what the fans deserve. is it impossible to achieve? again no, but to achieve these aims we have to stand up people trying to kidnap the sport for ransom.

at the end of the interview, Price said this:

The whole sport needs to simplify itself. The message is too complicated right now.

and so too, Mr Price, is yours.

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