Is professional cycling about to undergo a coup?
In recent weeks, news of a project which may shake up the cycling calendar has emerged after months of rumours of a breakaway league. The World Series Cycling (WSC) project aims to establish a new race series.
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WSC is the brainchild of London sports marketing company Gifted Group. Working with the support of eight WorldTour teams – Garmin, Liquigas, Movistar, Omega Pharma, Rabobank, RadioShack, Saxo Bank and Vacansoleil – Gifted Group are proposing a new series of 10 “Grand Prix” races, consisting of four stages (one flat, one hilly, one mountainous, one time trial), in different countries around the world. These would fit around the three Grand Tours, the five Monuments, plus the world championships and Amstel Gold.
In an interview with cyclingnews.com, Gifted Group’s Jonathan Price expanded on the concept.
“The whole reason we’ve put this project together is because we believe there’s a significant commercial opportunity,” he said.
According to Price, plans for WSC have been developed over the last two years, and since the end of 2011, Zdenek Bakala, the Czech owner of the Omega Pharma team, has been involved.
It’s here that the timeline gets a little confusing.
– On November 10 2012, the UCI sent out a press release stating that they had signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” with Bakala concerning “possible development” of the professional cycling calendar. They stated that talks with Bakala had started in “late 2011”
– On March 8 2012, Bloomberg.com published a story about WSC, quoting UCI President Pat McQuaid from an interview conducted on January 25 2012. He described the project as a “breakaway league” that would threaten established events.
– In the cyclingnews interview, Price stated that he had been working with Bakala since “the end of last year (2011)
It seems that while McQuaid was making public statements disparaging World Series Cycling, he was already involved in talks with individuals involved in it. I understand that behind the scenes, the UCI are sceptical about the WSC plans, although their “Memorandum of Understanding” with Bakala demonstrates that they are only one step removed from them.
I asked the UCI to address the confusion, and they said: “The UCI and Bakala are in discussions about possible development of the calendar. These discussions include the potential establishment of a new company that would promote and organise elements of this new calendar. No agreement has been reached.”
How advanced are the plans? Some speculation has said that the Grand Prix series could be in place as early as 2014. That these plans have been formulated over two years, but the organisers are only informing the cycling public now, is worrying. While the Tour and Monuments are safe, the Grand Prix will be in direct competition with established races like Paris-Nice, the Tour of the Basque Country and Paris-Tours.
The concern now is that Gifted Group and Bakala could be trampling all over the cycling calendar and the sport itself, and the operation will be presented as a fait accompli.
There are so many holes in the World Series Calendar that I’m surprised it hasn’t collapsed under the weight of its own ludicrousness.
The events look derivative and unimaginative, especially compared to the rich range of established races. And the organisers talk in the language of acquisitiveness and marketing, not of sport. If Bakala wasn’t able to wave blank cheques in the face of the UCI, would they listen to his ideas so readily?
Furthermore, establishing new events isn’t easy. The UCI have been attempting to foist new events on the cycling calendar for 20 years now, from the GP de la Libération to the Eneco Tour. And what is striking is that the biggest races in the world in 2012 were also the biggest races in the world in 1992. Of all the new races introduced in the last 20 years, only the Strade Bianche has captured the imagination of cycling fans. Even the Tour of California is still working hard on building its identity – it has nowhere near the prestige of a Grand Tour, or even Paris-Nice.
But I think the main problem with WSC is that the organisers don’t understand cycling.
Price said: “A lot of people have heard of Bradley Wiggins, 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. The sport needs to simplify itself. The message is too complicated right now.”
That one statement should ensure that he is not allowed within 100 miles of a bike race, unless it’s for his own educational purposes. Cycling is a fascinating, nuanced, tactical sport. A team sport for individuals. A simple sport of great complexity. Fans are quite capable of coping with the information that Bradley Wiggins has won the Tour de France while Mark Cavendish has won more stages. If Price believes that followers of cycling, casual or committed, are so feeble-minded that they would prefer 10 identikit races in front of sparse crowds to the ever-evolving richness of the cycling calendar, then he needs to poke his nose into another sport.
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