Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Pro Cycling: Thoughts On Moreno And The ProTour

Gregorio Moreno recently lost the election for president of the UCI, the international governing body for bicycle racing. I could not believe my eyes when I read what he told the Spanish newspaper AS about the ProTour and particularly its first champion, Danilo Di Luca:

"For example, I would create specialty classifications: the best of the Grand Tours, the best of the classics... That would be better than to mix them all, because the result is that Di Luca, the first winner [of the ProTour] hasn't raced the Tour."
Is Moreno really saying he believes the season-long champion has to ride in one particular race, the Tour de France, to deserve the title? The Tour is already the 800-pound gorilla of the race calendar, and the ProTour points are weighted in its favor over the other Grand Tours. Isn't that enough for Moreno? I find this particularly amusing coming from a Spaniard because it sounds like the sort of thing many Americans--people who know nothing of pro cycling beyond the Tour de France--would say: "Dude, Lance should be the ProTour champ because he won the Tour!" Someone in Europe, especially someone so involved in the sport as to be running for a leadership position, should have a broader view of the sport.

Winning a championship that is decided over the course of eight months requires consistency and stamina. An ideal champion would show strength in both one-day and stage races, which Di Luca has done. In fact, while most riders who excel in the classics (Di Luca won two this year) ride the Grand Tours in search of only stage wins and perhaps the sprinter's jersey, Di Luca took a shot at the general classification of the Giro d'Italia and finished fourth. (My only problem with Danilo Di Luca is the momentary confusion when my wife mentions her Dean & Deluca catalog.) The ProTour may have some problems, but having a winner who did not ride in the Tour de France is not one of them. I am so relieved that Gregorio Moreno lost the election for UCI president!

Of course, the ProTour, which is completing its first season as the top level of bike racing, has some issues that must be debated and resolved over the winter. Some racers have complained that there are too many required races, which stretches the team thin and exhausts the riders before the season is over. Race organizers wish their were fewer teams in the ProTour because they only get to invite one or two wildcard teams to a race, inevitably excluding some teams popular with the local fans. On the other hand, races that are not on the ProTour schedule could have trouble attracting top teams, though that has been less of a problem than I expected (sponsors still want visibility in their target markets, and riders still need racing to prepare for the ProTour events). The people who run the Grand Tours (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana) are threatening to not even participate in the ProTour in 2006. In a worst case scenario, I fear that pro cycling could split the way Indy car racing did years ago when the Indy Racing League began competing with CART.

My complaint about the ProTour is that by setting up an elite league, the UCI has created the sort of environment where the rich teams get richer and the poor stay poor. In the days of Division I, II, and III, it was easier for a team at the top of a lower division to move up the next year. Now most of the ProTour teams have multi-year licenses, making it very hard to break in. Even if there was some upward mobility, any team that isn't in the ProTour has trouble attracting the talented riders that could elevate the team's status because they cannot gain entry into the most important races on the calendar. Signing with a "Continental" team (the level below ProTour) means a rider probably won't get to ride in more than a handful of the 27 biggest races that are mandatory for ProTour teams. Anyone who thinks he can win at the top level would have a hard time giving up that opportunity. It will be interesting to see what happens to the three teams vying for the one ProTour license available. Two of the teams have signed some big names to improve their chances. I wonder if those riders negotiated escape clauses in their contracts in case their team fails to make it into the ProTour. This should be an interesting winter...

UPDATE 10/07/2005 - My letter to cyclingnews.com ("Thank goodness Moreno lost") got published.

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