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WILCOCKSON: How ASO revived the “Dead” UCI ProTour

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Feb 5, 2016 – When I ended my last column on the ongoing conflict between French race organizer ASO and cycling’s governing body, the UCI (see “Doping/Teams Fueled ASO-UCI War”), the 17 ProTour teams competing at the 2008 Tour de France had decided at a meeting on the first rest day, in Pau, to sign a joint agreement to not renew their UCI ProTour licenses in 2009. As a result, that week’s French newspaper, Journal de Dimanche, reflected the general consensus in its headline: “The ProTour is dead.”

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

So how did the UCI ProTour, perhaps the most significant reform in modern cycling, deteriorate from a project of great potential into one that divided the sport in four short years? A major part of the conflict was ASO’s desire to control its own destiny (defined by its bottom line) and adhere to the pre-ProTour status quo rather than agree to the UCI’s vision of a global sport and expanded revenues that would benefit everyone, not just ASO.

The teams had ignored the UCI in starting that year’s Tour, which ASO chose to promote under the rules of the French Cycling Federation (FFC) and not the UCI’s—even though the FFC did not have the authority to do that. This enabled ASO to dis-invite one of the ProTour teams, Astana, because of the doping transgressions that so embarrassed ASO the previous year. After coopting the FFC, ASO also stopped the UCI from conducting the Tour’s medical controls, which were handled by the French Anti-Doping Agency with assistance from WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. This further angered the UCI, not only because it was contrary to anti-doping protocol but also because the first WADA president, Dick Pound, had been openly criticizing the UCI’s anti-doping policies for many years.

So it was somewhat ironic that two days after the teams signed their agreement in Pau French security police again showed up at the Tour—similar to their raids at the “Festina Affair” Tour of 1998. This time, in the streets of Lavelanet before starting stage 12, the police took into custody the leader of the Saunier Duval team, Riccardo Riccò, who’d won the Tour’s first two mountain stages. It was revealed that the Italian climber had tested positive for CERA a third-generation form of EPO. There were five other EPO positives in that race, including three announced several weeks later: Riccò’s teammate Leonardo Piepoli (who won the major climbing stage in the Pyrénées) and two riders from Team Gerolsteiner, Stefan Schumacher (who won the major alpine stage) and Bernhard Kohl (the third-place Tour finisher and King of the Mountains “winner”).

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These doping scandals somewhat overshadowed the ongoing conflict between ASO and the UCI, which appeared to be going ASO’s way. After the ProTour teams signed their joint agreement in Pau, they issued a communiqué saying: “The teams are working toward the development of a new organizational system for professional cycling…and are waiting for the UCI to join this project.” The UCI president Pat McQuaid reacted in a press statement, saying: “The UCI takes note that the teams have once more ceded to the pressure exerted by the directors at ASO, whose objective over the past four years has been to destroy the ProTour. On signing the agreement that ASO imposed on them, the teams seem to want to join the parallel system that ASO is seeking to put in place.”

Indeed, there was evidence that ASO president Patrice Clerc was having talks with other race organizers to set up such a “parallel system” or even a separate federation. At the time, ASO was still in expansion mode, having bought a 49-percent ownership share of the Vuelta a España the previous month; but its parent company, the Amaury Group, was experiencing declining revenues in its publishing business since the premature death of its autocratic boss Philippe Amaury in 2006. His widow, Marie-Odile Amaury, had taken over as CEO and had a more pragmatic view of the family business. She restructured management at the sports daily L’Équipe in the spring of 2008, and she had other financial concerns when Europe was sucked into the Great Recession by mid-2008.

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There had been changes at the UCI too. When McQuaid took over as president in the fall of 2005, former president Hein Verbruggen automatically lost his membership with the International Olympic Committee. That was a problem for the IOC because Verbruggen had to be an IOC member to stay in charge of coordinating the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a highly political task that IOC president Jacques Rogge wanted him to continue for the remaining three years of his tenure. That goal was achieved by appointing Verbruggen as a UCI vice president that allowed him to be reelected to the IOC at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

So the Swiss-based Dutch official was not as intimately involved with cycling in mid-2008, around the time the French press was declaring “the ProTour is dead,” when he received a very surprising phone call. It was from a former IOC marketing colleague who had joined ASO and was still living in Switzerland. He told Verbruggen he was calling on behalf of Madame Amaury, who, he intimated, wanted to “finish this war with the UCI” and wondered if the UCI “was also willing to finish this war.”

After some initial discussions, a formal meeting was arranged on neutral ground. It took place shortly before the Beijing Olympics in the office of IOC president Rogge—who opened the meeting and then left to catch a plane and leave IOC member (and former ASO director) Jean-Claude Killy as the moderator. Marie-Odile Amaury was seconded by her trusted company directors Alain Krzentowski and Martin Desprez—not by ASO president Clerc, who had clearly been bypassed. Meanwhile, for the UCI, Verbruggen was there to assist McQuaid, who remembers, “After a full day discussing and negotiating, we came to a broad agreement on a way forward.”

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Once both sides’ lawyers had drafted an agreement, McQuaid and Madame Amaury met again in mid-August at the Olympics in Beijing, where they shook hands on a deal. This included the announcement of a new UCI World Calendar starting in 2009 that would incorporate a so-called Historic Calendar of races (those organized by ASO and the other grand tour owners) with the previous ProTour events, while ASO would return to accepting all ProTour teams at its events starting in 2011. (On a side note, when the Games were over, Verbruggen stepped down from the IOC and a month later resigned as a UCI vice president.)

McQuaid said that negotiations with the Amaury Group and the organizers of the Giro and Vuelta continued through September 2008—including a meeting at the finish of the Vuelta in Madrid between the ProTour teams and Madame Amaury, who was accompanied by Tour race director Christian Prudhomme. The discussions ended on the evening before the UCI Congress at the world road championships in Varese, Italy. Part of the deal included the UCI withdrawing a proposal on the congress agenda that would have punished the FFC for enabling ASO to run that year’s Paris-Nice and Tour de France as French national calendar events.

A key element of the new deal, McQuaid said, was changing the ProTour teams’ licensing rules. “The agreement we carved out, which became the WorldTour, got ASO back into the fold and did away with four-year licenses for the teams in favor of one-year renewable licenses. This satisfied ASO and their vision of the ‘European’ model rather than the ‘American’ model,” he said.

All parties signed the final agreements on September 25, 2008, and issued a joint news release that stated: “These agreements provide a framework within which the parties will work together for the sport of cycling going forward. All parties believe that this marks the start of a new positive era for a united cycling family.” A week later, ASO parted ways with its longtime president Patrice Clerc, who was replaced by Madame Amaury’s then 31-year-old son Jean-Etienne Amaury. From a more outward-looking generation than the xenophobic Clerc, the new ASO president earned an MBA from Stanford and previously worked for five years as an IT engineer developing new media at Bloomberg News in London.

14 October 2009 Presentation of Tour de France 2010 AMAURY Jean-Etienne (ASO) President of A.S.O. Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

So peace had been restored to pro cycling and it seemed that ASO, the UCI and the teams were finally on the same path, ready to take the sport more firmly into the 21st century. But there were still some storm clouds on the horizon….

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You can follow John at @johnwilcockson.