‘It’s not really clear what the WorldTour is any more’

Critics say that pro cycling's expanded top tier of racing is difficult for fans to understand and potentially damaging for the sport

From a distance, cycling’s WorldTour series appears bigger and stronger than ever for 2017 – but critics say the structure is becoming increasingly diluted and confusing for fans.

Just yesterday, the UCI added its 11th new race to the 2017 WorldTour calendar. It confirmed that the Tour of Guangxi in China would join the top tier of professional bike racing.

The result is that the WorldTour has ballooned from 27 to 38 races for the year ahead. The series now appears truly global, with events in China, Turkey, the Middle East and the U.S.A – not to mention the UK, where RideLondon is now part of the top roster. These new additions augment the traditional calendar events that every cyclist dreams of winning, including iconic races such as Milan-San Remo and the Tour de France.

The catch: the 18 WorldTeams teams may choose whether they attend the new 11 events. They are required to take part in the others, as has been the case since the series began as the ProTour in 2005, but the new events remain optional.

For insiders such as Richard Plugge of team LottoNL-Jumbo, this new pick-and-mix approach to the WorldTour is damaging to the brand and to its accessibility to new fans.

“We should keep it as clear as possible for the audience,” Plugge told Cycling Weekly. “It’s not really clear what the WorldTour is, and which races are important and which ones are not important. You have to explain at lot to keep the audience on track.”

Among the new WorldTour fixtures are long-running and proven events such as Strade Bianche in Siena, Italy, and the Tour of California, as well as less established races in Turkey and China. Whatever their history, those races now carry the same WorldTour tag as the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix.

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Unlike those famous races, however, organisers of the new 11 events do not have any guarantee that the top 18 teams will attend. It is an unfortunate consequence, but the teams fought for voluntary participation when the UCI said it wanted to add races to an already busy calendar.

Plugge, who is a board member of the AIGCP (the association representing the teams), said they were discussing what to do when the UCI added the races to the calendar in August.

“You could say we were bullied by the UCI by them taking the decision before our consultation process finished,” he added. “We would have said yes, so the outcome would’ve been the same anyway.

“If you add days, it needs to be though a due process with the main stakeholders. You have to make sure the WorldTour calendar is not devaluated with the days added.”

The ASO, cycling’s top organiser with the Tour de France, presented the 2017 Tour de Yorkshire route today. The race, with 2.1 status, ranks two levels below the WorldTour. ASO says it has no aspirations to get the race promoted in the future.

“Cycling is a pyramid,” Tour de France Director Christian Prudhomme said. “You can’t have every race in the WorldTour, otherwise the WorldTour wouldn’t mean anything.

“The Tour de France is at the top of the pyramid, but every pyramid needs a large base. For me the goal is not to get the Tour de Yorkshire into the WorldTour, the most important goal is that we create a race with an outstanding backdrop, steep climbs, brilliant racing, and passion of the fans.”

The Tour de Yorkshire has been a great success so far, and organiser ASO says its future growth doesn't depend on WorldTour status

The Tour de Yorkshire has been a great success so far, and organiser ASO says its future growth doesn’t depend on WorldTour status

The fans and cycling insiders are scratching their heads with the direction the WorldTour is going. Though new races in China present plenty of opportunities for development and business, they will hold less importance if the top teams choose not to attend.

Alain Rumpf, who worked for the UCI and presided over the former Tour de Beijing organiser from 2011 to 2014, was similarly critical.

“I’m still struggling to understand what the WorldTour label means,” he said.

“What is the status of the WorldTour and what does it mean to be in the WorldTour? If you only have a few teams participating, then what will it mean? What is the difference between these races being in the WorldTour or [a level below as] an HC race?

“I don’t understand it and I don’t think this is the way to go for the sport.”

The problem doesn’t look as if it will go away anytime soon. The UCI has given new races such as the Tour of Guangxi a three-year deal that will keep it in the WorldTour until 2019.