HOW DID IT COME TO THIS - AND WHERE DO WE GO NEXT?
Pat McQuaid’s threat that any riders who take part in next week’s Paris-Nice face bans of up to six months is having the desired effect in some quarters.
Slowly, riders who stand to lose out are thinking twice about the wisdom of racing in Paris-Nice. The teams are considering their options while keeping their cards close to their chests.
It won’t be a surprise to see a weak and predominantly-French line-up on Sunday.
It appears High Road’s Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins will not ride the ASO-organised event for fear that a suspension could rule them out of the World Track Championships later this month – and possibly even the Olympics. See Thursday’s Cycling Weekly for more.
Française des Jeux manager Marc Madiot has said he will not risk Philippe Gilbert, winner of Sunday’s Het Volk either. He doesn’t want his prized asset banned and so will field eight French riders in Paris-Nice – presumably ones he can do without if the UCI carries out its threat.
But that is not necessarily an endorsement of the UCI’s position. It is just a precaution against the loosest gun in the wild west, Pat McQuaid, going off half cocked and spraying suspensions about like confetti.
More than 150 riders could face bans for riding a race. Imagine that. If only the UCI had been as tough on the drug cheats in the 1990s.
No doubt the situation will change on a daily, if not hourly, basis between now and Sunday.
Teams will travel to Amilly, south of Paris, in readiness, but they are divided on what action to take. They don’t want to boycott Paris-Nice because it would be a very public snub to the organiser of the Tour de France which could have repercussions.
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Foreign teams on good terms with ASO will tread carefully, making sure not to upset their hosts but still wary of the threat posed by McQuaid.
And we thought, after successive doping scandals, that cycling’s reputation as a sport divided by self-interest could not possibly get worse?
The riders can feel suitably aggrieved that they are being used as pawns in the power struggle.
As too can the sponsors. Companies want exposure for racing in the first really big stage race of the year. There’s television coverage and newspaper column inches to be gained. Instead their brands are being dragged into another turf war.
What company, looking from the outside, considering ways to use its marketing budget in 2009 and beyond is going to say: “Hey, cycling looks a great bet, hand me the chequebook and pen.”?
Last year Unibet.com were the political football. ASO used a piece of French legislation concerning the advertising of bookmakers as the smokescreen in order to bar the team from its event.
The real issue was that ASO did not like having its team selection dictated by the UCI. Unibet.com paid the price.
This year, Astana is the piggy in the middle.
The UCI agreed to one wish of the grand tour organisers by removing their events from the ProTour. They placed most of the events – including Paris-Nice – on the Europe Tour, giving a certain freedom over team selection.
The Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a Espana and most famous Classics have been placed on what is currently called ‘The Historic Calendar’. Again the organisers have a certain latitude over team selection.
But when it came to the Tour de France, which the UCI placed in the ‘World Calendar’, the insistence was that ASO invite all 18 teams in the ProTour, without exception.
McQuaid talks of this decision being made democratically, with the agreement of the UCI, and the teams’ representatives.
However, ASO never made any concessions and so when the decision was made to exclude Astana from all of its events it put the French company and the world governing body on collision course.
The big question is, why is McQuaid stepping in to defend Astana much more forcefully than he ever did Unibet?
|CALL YOURSELF A GOVERNING BODY?|
Its flagship event is the World Championships but other than that, it does not have hands-on dealings with the organisation and running of events.
That job is left to private organisations large and small the world over.
ASO just happens to be one of the largest, richest and most successful because it owns the biggest, best and most prestigious event in the world, the Tour de France.
It is not an altruistic concern. It reserves the right to make money and it does very well from television rights, in particular.
But it also ploughs money and resources back into the sport.
Famous and storied though Paris-Nice is, without ASO it would be dead. The company stepped in to rescue it in 2002 when Laurent Fignon failed to make it a going concern. Using the Tour de France as a bargaining tool, French Television extended its commitment to cover Paris-Nice at a time when it was considering scaling back coverage.
Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix would no doubt prosper under pretty much any stewardship but don’t forget ASO also remains committed to lots of smaller races such as the Tour of Picardie, Criterium International and the Tour de l’Avenir.
ASO didn’t kick up a fuss when Criterium International, a significant two-day race that has always boasted a top field, was left out of the ProTour in 2005. Since then it has suffered a loss of shine, like many other races that were not included, but ASO did not complain.
Groupe Lagadère, part of the Amaury Group, purchased a large stake in the Tour of Germany and, despite denials to the contrary, the Parisians at ASO are still eyeing Unipublic, organiser of the Vuelta a Espana.
There is no doubt ASO is the leading player in bike-race organisation but why shouldn’t it be?
On the other hand it should not be allowed carte blanche to do exactly as it pleases, but the UCI’s approach is not going to keep it in check, especially if ASO suspects the UCI’s motives for reigning in the French company’s reach is in order to claim a share of television revenues further down the line. After all, that was the complaint of many organisers when the ProTour was set up. They saw it as an attempt by the UCI to establish a league of events where television rights could be sold across Europe and the world with the UCI taking a cut.
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Now a professional rider faces the prospect of being out of action for a half a year because they want to race.
And the thing that is disingenuous about McQuaid’s threat is that he hasn’t come out and said one way or the other way bans will be issued.
Instead, he’s putting the squeeze on by making a threat, hoping that enough of teams and individual riders will pull out of Paris-Nice to cause the event, and ASO, serious embarrassment.
Come on, Pat. Either it’s a six-month ban for taking part in Paris-Nice or it’s not. As rhetoric it sounds weedy, bullying and pathetic. If you mean it, put it in writing and stick to it. Ban them all, don’t change your mind later, don’t weaken, just do it.
Ban them for racing their bicycles in one of the most prestigious and famous events in the world.
Then see what kind of legal threat the UCI faces. The bottom line is the sponsors and management don't pay their riders to sit around on their backsides while one of the biggest and best events plays out with unknowns.
Perhaps ASO should set up the rival competition that their posturing suggests is on their agenda – then let the teams, riders and sponsors decide which horse they want to back – because the way things are going it’s clear ASO and the UCI can no longer co-exist.
In the meantime, we have a stand-off until Sunday, with the likelihood that hostilities will escalate in the weeks that follow.
Both sides will no doubt claim ‘victory’ when the official start list of Paris-Nice is announced – whenever that may be.
But there are no winners here. Not cycling, not the UCI, not the riders, not ASO and certainly not the television viewers who were anticipating a rip-roaring race.
McQuaid defied anti-apartheid ban to race in South Africa. Is he the right man to lecture others on where to race?
Cavendish and Wiggins avoid Paris-Nice and possible UCI ban