Just as we were all easing into the pre-Christmas weekend, the Amaury Sport Organisation sent us a surprise present: it is going to withdraw all of its races from the 2017 UCI WorldTour calendar.
That means that some of the most prestigious cycling events will be absent from the top-flight professional cycling calendar: Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Critérium du Dauphiné.
This brings about a serious feeling of déjà vu. Ten years ago ASO were in a long-running dispute with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), threatening to pull its events from the forerunner of today’s WorldTour, the ProTour.
ASO argued – quite reasonably, in fact – that its races had survived quite nicely before the UCI came along with its ProTour and its rulebook, thank you very much. Put simply, then as now, ASO did not want to be told how to run its events and who to invite to them.
The spat between the event organiser and the sport’s governing body rumbled on for several years, eventually leading to ASO’s events (and the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España) being removed from the ProTour and put into a separate ‘Historical Events’ calendar. Sound familiar?
Eventually, the disagreement was smoothed over and the utterly confusing separate ProTour and Historical race calendars were again merged as the re-branded WorldTour in 2009. Seven years later, and we’re back to square one, with ASO saying that it wants to register its races as a level below WorldTour in 2017, in essence to avoid having them run under WorldTour rules.
How can the WorldTour teams expect to attract solid sponsorship and survive without the guarantee that they are automatically invited to the Tour de France? It’s hard enough to attract money into the sport even with that guarantee in place, let alone without it.
Thankfully, there are now 12 months for the two parties to get together and attempt to come to an agreement. The UCI needs to listen carefully to ASO, and ensure that its WorldTour reforms can include measures to appease ASO. And ASO needs to consider the requirements of teams and fans in addition to preserving the integrity of its events.
All of this could be a bit of sabre-rattling from ASO to make their standpoint very clear, or perhaps it genuinely means it has had enough of the UCI’s way of doing things.
Either way, a WorldTour calendar without the toughest, most prestigious and best races is a nonsense, and one that will also potentially cause a split between the UCI and the top teams, and severely damage professional cycling in the long term.