Cycling moved one step further to the brink of an irrevocable split this week.
On Monday, Tour de France organisers, ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation), announced that they had signed a marketing agreement with Tour of California organisers, AEG. The news came shortly after ASO declared that it had acquired a 49% stake in the Tour of Spain.
June 2008 may well go down as a significant turning point in relations between ASO and the UCI as the sport looks closer to splitting than ever before.
Initially, the ASO-AEG agreement will only provide each party with marketing and promotional assistance. It looks like a calculated move by ASO to anger UCI President Pat McQuaid, who went to a lot of effort to schmooze the organisers in California this February.
AEG will undoubtedly benefit from ASO?s expertise in organising high-profile bike races such as the Tour, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix. AEG currently owns five of America?s top sports teams, including David Beckham?s LA Galaxy and its side of the bargain is to help ASO enhance the popularity of the Tour in North America, a process that began as a result of the success enjoyed by riders like Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong.
However, the move is likely to isolate McQuaid and the UCI even further. The UCI fears that ASO is attempting to establish a rival calendar to challenge the ProTour. The 2008 Tour of California was a great success due to increased media attention, Mario Cipollini?s short-lived comeback and some exciting racing, leading to speculation that the race was potentially in line for a spot in the 2009 ProTour. However, ProTour rules would mean fewer wildcard spaces available for American teams, an important consideration for the race organisers if the race is to have mass appeal in the States.
So what direction now for cycling? ASO is a wealthy organisation and can easily afford to acquire an extensive portfolio of cash-strapped races. Despite claims by the UCI that it would be in the teams? commercial interests for the ProTour to expand into Asia and Australasia, the fact remains that the heart of cycling is in Western Europe.
The UCI is the sport?s governing body. But it is faced with an ever-narrowing calendar. And they are looking less likely to find agreement with ASO than ever. At present, ASO?s deep pockets and strategic investments are winning the war for the control of the sport.
Tour de France
Tour of Spain
ASO has a 49% share in the management company, Unipublic. ASO has stated that despite its Astana exclusion policy, the team from Kazakhstan will retain its invite to this year?s edition
Tour of Germany
ASO has a stake in the race?s management
Tour of California
Marketing and promotional agreement with organisers, AEG. It is America?s biggest stage race and guaranteeing places for American teams is essential, something which would not have been possible under the ProTour.
NEXT ON THE ACQUISITIONS LIST?
Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré
Cycling Weekly spotted an ASO communications official at the Dauphiné. ASO is not known for making appearances at the race, particularly as it is still part of the UCI ProTour, but the Dauphiné is rumoured to be strapped for cash and may well accept ASO guarantees of independence in return for some extra funding.
Tour of Flanders
The Tour of Flanders is also rumoured to be one of the next races in line for an ASO makeover. The race is strongly independent and is almost a religion with the locals, thus it is unclear why it would need to sell-out. However, the move would lead to an ASO near-monopoly of the Northern Classics.
PROTOUR AND PROUD
Tour of Switzerland
Fiercely independent and flourishing under the ProTour. Still enjoying its status as a major warm-up race for the Tour de France, the event is very popular with the fans. The Tour of Romandy also enjoys its independence as well its status as a warm-up race for the Giro and is firmly in the ProTour camp, for now at least.
Amstel Gold and Ghent-Wevelgem
Despite ASO?s advances on the Northern Classics, the UCI still controls Amstel Gold and Ghent-Wevelgem. Neither race is one the five ?Monuments? of cycling, although they do still carry considerable prestige.
Tours of China and Russia
The UCI is currently discussing the possibility of stage-races in Russia and China and Vladimir Putin is certainly very keen on the idea. Neither country, however, is famous for holding bike races, and it may be that without its star races the UCI will continue to resort to invented tradition to keep its calendar alive. It also remains to be seen how popular such races will be outside of Russia and China.
Tour Down Under
Originally only a warm-up for European pros but elevated to ProTour status earlier this year and as such benefited from a quality field but dull racing.