Pais Vasco, San Sebastian and Volta a Catalunya to disappear?

Three of Spain’s four biggest races – the Vuelta al País Vasco, Clásica San Sebastian and Volta a Catalunya – are all facing major economic difficulties, with organisers warning that the two Basque events will be cancelled if a new sponsor does not come forward in the next 10 days.

The Vuelta a España, Spain’s flagship event which is jointly owned by Tour de France organisers ASO, appears to be relatively safe from the ongoing economic recession in Spain.

But in a press release on Wednesday afternoon, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) effectively confirmed that apart from the Vuelta, Spain’s cycling situation is in a critical condition. The country’s only major one-day Classic, the Clásica San Sebastian, its sister race the Vuelta al País Vasco and the Volta a Catalunya – Spain’s oldest stage race – were all “currently facing economic related difficulties that could threaten the continued organisation of these benchmark races for professional cycling.”

Should they all go, Spain’s ‘middle tier’ of races would be wiped out at a stroke. Of the WorldTour events in Spain, only the Vuelta would remain.

The UCI stated that they were in contact with “all parties implicated on an institutional level” – such as the Catalan regional government – in the Volta a Catalunya. As for the Basque races it was still collecting “all the information necessary in order to come up with an intervention strategy.”

Whatever that strategy is, the UCI will have to move very fast. “If we don’t have a solution by March 5, we are calling it quits,” Vuelta al País Vasco and Clásica San Sebastian director Jaime Ugarte told Cycling Weekly.

“We have a global budget of 1,050,000 euros in place. But we are lacking the last 150,000 euros that is used for the main Grand Prix, and we can’t find a sponsor for that.”

“Right now we have nothing. 150,000 euros doesn’t sound like a lot. But none of us who work in the organisation – and we’ve been doing this for the last 30 years – are paid workers, we all do this for the love of cycling, but we aren’t prepared to pay up with our own money.”

Yesterday’s news that another Basque event, the GP Llodio – one of a handful of Spanish one-day races – has just been cancelled hardly improved Ugarte’s morale. But rather than the doping stories which have battered the sport in Spain for the last 10 years, Ugarte blames the appalling state of the Spanish economy for the lack of sponsors coming forward and which could end up spelling curtains for his and other races.

“The [doping] question is done and dusted,” he said recently. “The testing by the UCI and the biological passport have all enabled us to put those questions behind us.”

“The problem is the Spanish economy. It’s completely screwed.” In the case of the two Basque races, the ongoing austerity drive by the regional governments as Spain battles its enormous budget deficit – meaning drastic cutbacks across the board – are the root of the problem.

Up until this year, the Basque regional government paid for the Vuelta al País Vasco’s Grand Prix. But at a meeting this spring they told Ugarte they could only find 60 percent of the total.

Although Catalunya’s economic difficulties are not so acute – the race will go ahead in 2012 – the problems it and cycling face in Catalunay are far more deep-rooted than those facing the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. For the last three or four years, the Volta has only survived thanks to sponsorship from the Catalan regional government, and the work of a small group of unpaid volunteers.

Part of the problem in Catalunya is that cycling just doesn’t have the support it used to be able to count on. Unlike the Basque Country, where cycling is very popular – witness the crowds when the Vuelta a España returned there in 2011 for the first time in 30 years – in Catalunya, what was a flourishing racing scene until 20 years ago has fast dwindled away as the public have lost interest.

The loss of the Setmana Catalana – Catalan Week – a few years back was one big blow. So too, was the disappearance of other landmark Catalan events like the Trofeo Masferrer and the Subida a Montjuic. And when Spanish state television TVE announced it was dropping their live coverage (again, because of cuts) of the Volta, it looked as if the writing was on the wall for the Volta, too. In fact, it has struggled on. But every year the rumours it will collapse have grown.

Equivalent week-long stage races like the Dauphine Libéré and Paris-Nice in France, avoided the Euro-wide economic downturn by being bought out by ASO. In the case of Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy, it already belonged to Giro organisers RCS. ASO – who already jointly own the Vuelta – offered to buy the Vuelta al País Vasco in 2010, but they were turned down. Now, it may be too late.

“We have problems, like everybody. But this year, we’re going ahead,” Ruben Peris, the organiser of the 101-year-old Volta and seemingly one of life’s perpetual optimists, said recently. How long they will continue to do so, however, is another story.

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