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Dec 30, 2015 – When I read the pre-Christmas press release from Amaury Sport Organisation, the world’s biggest bike race promoter, that it plans to withdraw all of its high-profile races from the UCI WorldTour in 2017, I was reminded of Groundhog Day. Every time a non-French entity proposes changing the traditional set-up in cycling, ASO acts the same way: defending tradition and its prime position in the cycling economy. It’s a tactic that has been used for the best part of 30 years…
Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada
Let’s go back to 1987. France was the epicenter of world cycling. French was the sport’s only official language; the Tour de France was already the world’s biggest bike race; and a French liquor company (Pernod) sponsored the most important annual points competition. As for the Union Cycliste Internationale, it was a legislative body with just two paid employees that was barely involved in professional cycling. Since the mid-1960s it had been split into two parts. The bigger half, FIAC (International Federation of Amateur Cycling), was based in Rome, had more than 125 member federations around the world and was responsible for Olympic cycling. The FICP (International Federation of Professional Cycling), which represented a handful of mostly West European countries, was run out of a small office in Luxembourg.
In 1987, the predecessor of ASO, the Société du Tour de France (then owned by two national newspapers, L’Équipe and Le Parisien Libéré, which were part of the Amaury media group) was somewhat in disarray. Its longtime director Félix Lévitan had been dismissed because of alleged financial irregularities in promoting the inaugural (and only) Tour of America. Lévitan and his aging partner Jacques Goddet recognized that a new generation of racers from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Ireland and the United States was challenging European dominance, so the French promoters wanted to “globalize” the Tour and create some new international races. There were mixed results.
The 1983 Tour of America proved a failed attempt to expand; the first participation of a U.S. pro team (7-Eleven) at the Tour, in 1986, was a success; and the choice of East Berlin to start the 1987 Tour was a small step toward including countries of the Soviet Bloc into the professional cycling community. Pro cycling in the ’80s was still small time compared with expanding sports such as tennis, golf and basketball. For instance, the winner’s prize at the 1987 Tour was a vacation apartment (valued at $20,000) plus a $30,000 check—a fraction of what a golfer or tennis player would win at a major tournament.
Other than the Tour, the Société owned six other races in 1987, all of them French, five of which were part of the season-long Super Prestige Pernod competition: Paris-Roubaix, Bordeaux-Paris, the Tour de l’Avenir, Grand Prix des Nations and Paris-Tours. All told, the Super Prestige Pernod had a total of 33 events and more than 200 days of racing, made up of 17 one-day races (including the world pro road championship) and 16 stage races (including the Clásico RCN in Colombia, the Nissan Tour in Ireland and the Coors Classic in America).
Being a French-sponsored competition, the annual Pernod awards banquet was a glitzy, black-tie affair in a Paris theatre. It had been one of the sport’s social highlights since 1959, but 1987 would mark the Pernod’s final edition (won by Stephen Roche from fellow Irishman Sean Kelly), because the French government was in the course of banning alcohol sponsorship from sport events. Knowing that this ban was in the works, the French cycling magazine Vélo (also owned by the Amaury media group) had created in 1984 an overall world rankings system similar to that already used in tennis.
Known as the Classement Vélo, the rankings system was soon embraced by the newly elected president of the FICP, Hein Verbruggen, a Dutch marketing expert. Verbruggen, like the executives at Amaury, saw the potential of expanding and commercializing the sport of cycling. But he wasn’t French and he had different motives from ASO. With the world rankings system already renamed the Classement FICP, Verbruggen saw a second chance to expand the slowly growing FICP’s influence by filling the vacuum left by the Pernod competition and creating a World Cup similar to the one that existed in ski racing. Ironically, he launched his plan at the finish of the 1988 Tour de France with a champagne reception in the tented village on the Champs-Élysées.
The FICP had been running a low-key pro teams World Cup (based on teams’ results in 10 European one-day races) since the 1960s, and so Verbruggen’s new World Cup for individuals, starting in 1989, was also restricted to the traditional classics (but soon added races in Britain, Canada, Japan and German). His plans included a significant sponsorship package from the French mineral water company, Perrier, whose name would appear on the World Cup leader’s rainbow-themed jersey awarded after each of the races. This soon proved a problem between Amaury and the FICP, when the French organizer objected to Perrier diluting the impact of the company’s individual race sponsors—notably La Redoute at Paris-Roubaix, which for the previous three years had finished outside La Redoute’s factory and not at the Roubaix velodrome!
After Verbruggen was elected president of the UCI—where he negotiated with the head of the all-powerful International Olympic Committee to re-unite the FICP with FIAC to create a far stronger International Cycling Union—he moved its offices from Geneva to Lausanne, Switzerland, where the IOC was based. Verbruggen further increased his influence by helping create official UCI world championships in mountain biking and BMX, and in the late-’90s he helped add the Japanese keirin event to the Olympic track cycling program. In the same time period, it is understood that the Japanese made a significant contribution to building the UCI’s $26 million headquarters (and eventually World Cycling Center) in Aigle, just outside Lausanne, that opened in 2002.
Having its own green-site building (to which an indoor velodrome and training facilities were added later) greatly increased the UCI’s presence along with the hiring of 40 full-time staff similar to that of other major international sports federations. A more powerful UCI further decreased the influence of the French and increased the number of clashes between the Dutchman and Amaury Sport Organisation (as the name of the Société di Tour became in 1992).
By the time the UCI moved to Aigle, Verbruggen was already hatching plans to replace the men’s UCI World Cup (which dropped its Perrier sponsorship early on) and the UCI World Rankings (previously the Classement FICP) to create an all-encompassing UCI ProTour—that would begin a cultural war that has yet to be settled between the traditionalists on one side (led by ASO) and the modernists (led at first by the UCI president and then by business-oriented teams).
I’ll return to this subject in next week’s column.
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You can follow John at @johnwilcockson