This was an article I originally wrote for Helium on 13 March 2007... the piece was rejected for... well, they've NEVER given me a reason WHY it was rejected, but it is among one of my favorite writings ever composed and it deserves an audience. The story of how a team worked its way to the highest echelons of cycling, this piece illustrates how the long-standing rift between Amaury Sport Organization, organizer of the Tour de France and other big races through France and Belgium, and the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body of cycling worldwine, led to this team's downfall and dissolution. As the sports world buzzes once again this offseason, with seven-time champion Lance Armstrong looking at a comeback and a crop of young cyclists led by Alberto Contador fanning the flames of fan interest, it is important to understand the underbelly of the sport. Complete with an interview with Unibet's directeur sportif (team director) Koen Terryn, this might be my best legitimate journalistic work yet... so from the ashes of Helium's incinerator, here's a long-overdue article...
The season begins anew, resplendent amidst the brewing controversy. Nineteen ProTour teams are tooling around France in the season's first major encounter, Paris-Nice, without their comrade Unibet.com. A pawn in the chess match pitting the UCI and its ProTour against the ASO and its landmark races, Unibet has become the sacrificial lamb offered up in truce between the two cycling titans. A newly-minted ProTour squad, the Swedish-sponsored Unibet.com team has been denied access to automatic entry in the eleven races organized by ASO, RCS and Unipublic. The UCI, compromising its stance regarding the race calendar, conceded the right of the grand-tour organizers to force Unibet.com and fellow neo-elite team Astana to seek out wild-card entry into all their races. While this last-minute negotiation has done little to harm Astana, with big-name riders Alexandre Vinokourov, Andreas Kloden and Paolo Savoldelli, Unibet.com has been cast outside of the power structure it had just paid so dearly to enter.
A history of the ProTour and its stormy introduction into the professional-cycling structure are necessary to better understand the implications of the current power struggle between the UCI and the grand-tour organizers. Originally conceived in 2001 by UCI President Hein Verbruggen, the ProTour would replace the crumbling UCI World Cup. Verbruggen recognized several problems that had existed with every previous season-long race series. With various teams targeting different types of races, one team could dominate the classics-based World Cup without even participating in a national tour. Neither grand nor one-week tours were taken into account when assessing season champions. With corporations targeting cycling as a short-term marketing strategy, teams tended to find it difficult to maintain sponsorship, fund team expenses and pay its employees. And doping was still running through the sport as teams still set their own agendas. He proposed a twenty-seven-race season, including the five monumental classics (Milano-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Giro di Lombardia), the grand tours of France, Italy and Spain, and one-week tours and smaller classics across Europe. Despite objections as to the scope and extent of membership in the concept, the grand-tour organizers begrudgingly permitted the UCI to regulate the number of teams receiving automatic invitations to the race.
As the project began to develop, the various involved parties began consulting on the form and size of this nascent league. In the past, teams had freely chosen to participate in any race of their choosing. The fourteen best teams in the UCI rankings were automatically invited to every race; they could decide to either accept or decline that invitation. Race organizers such as ASO would then extend wild-card invitations to other teams. What the UCI proposed was a twenty-team elite league, where every team would guarantee their presence at the twenty-seven sanctioned races. By Verbruggen's assessment, this assured race organizers of the presence of the best teams and riders at their races. But the race organizers interpreted a different message from the proposal. The former system permitted race promoters to invite teams with a particular appeal to the viewing public. American and Colombian teams entered the Tour de France in the 1980s through this wild-card system and helped to lead a cycling explosion in those regions. Smaller regional teams could be rewarded for their diligence and hidden talent. Where previously they could invite as many as eight teams to their race, organizers were now being presented with a plan that would slash that number to a maximum of two. While the quantity of teams hindered the major organizers' ability to invite wild-card teams to their races, ASO signed on to the ProTour for a two-year trial period in September 2004.
RCS and Unipublic, race organizers of the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana respectively, were even more receptive and supportive of the new proposal. Races such as their grand tours, which were fast becoming tours simply for national pride among domestic squads, this proposal would force teams to focus on their races as well. But the Tour de France, thanks to the pioneering genius of director Felix Levitan, had ballooned from mere bicycle race into global dynamo. Hundreds of teams and thousands of cyclists dreamed of their chance to ride the historic route. While teams may eschew an invitation to the Giro or Vuelta, no one turned down the opportunity to compete in the Tour de France. The ProTour would change this dynamic. Taking the control of race invitation out of the hands of the race organizers, the proposal would force mandatory participation in each of the ProTour races on every one of twenty member teams.
The ProTour kicked off in March 2005 as Bobby Julich of Team CSC became the first American to win the Paris-Nice stage race. The season was a high mark in cycling. A spirited spring classics season saw Quick.Step's Tom Boonen sweep the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix to cap his status as a new Lion of Flanders. The Giro d'Italia, with a full complement of the world's top teams, was one of the most openly-contested tours in years. Former champions Gilberto Simoni and Damiano Cunego combined forces with Tour podium finisher Ivan Basso and ProTour leader Danilo Di Luca to challenge the Discovery Channel team, but its designated leader Paolo Savoldelli was able to hang on to the maglia rosa until Milan for his second Giro crown. The Tour de France saw the final ride of undisputed Tour champion Lance Armstrong. And a thrilling Vuelta a Espana led into a spectacular World Championships, where Tom Boonen bested pre-race favorites Robbie McEwen and Alessandro Petacchi to win the rainbow jersey. As Paolo Bettini stormed to victory in the season-ending Giro di Lombardia, the ProTour and its inaugural champion Danilo Di Luca seemed headed for greater successes.
Now, with the ASO two-year trial period ended, the grand-tour organizers have come forward with objections to the system. Realizing the loss of power with the mandatory inclusion of twenty rather than fourteen teams, ASO, RCS and Unipublic have demanded reforms to the ProTour system. Already operating healthy, competitive and profitable races prior to their integration into this new league structure, the leadership of ASO, RCS and Unipublic attempted to convince the UCI to scale back their ProTour and create a tiered system where smaller teams could be rewarded through promotion and relegation. Modeling their ideas after traditional European soccer-league seasons, the big three promoters saw the benefits of the system but wanted their input heard. As the curators of the sport's history, the race directors thought they were owed that much in exchange for their support to the league. But, still unheard and unheeded, ASO took steps to divert UCI attention to their concerns. Threatening team exclusion and a rival grand-tour-based rival league, ASO and the other organizers increased their pressure on the UCI to alter the size and structure of the ProTour. However, when the dissolution of Phonak and Liberty Seguros presented the opportunity this winter to scale back amenably to eighteen teams in accordance with organizers' wishes, the UCI instead took more money from Astana and Unibet to expand back to twenty teams. Seeking money over an amenable relationship, the UCI balked at its own non-profit history to clutch short-term riches.
ASO WEIGHS HISTORY AGAINST FUTURE
When the UCI came to Amaury Sports Organization with a proposal for the creation of a twenty-seven-race ProTour, the ASO-controlled Tour de France stood as an anomaly in international sport. With a rich century-long history as a source of French pride, the race had nonetheless become an international spectacle rapidly dropping French cyclists and teams from the pace. Not since Richard Virenque had taken second behind German powerhouse Jan Ullrich in 1997 had a French rider stood on the podium at the Champs-Elysses. The disclosure of a deeply-ingrained doping program at top-ranked international team Festina, a French squad boasting Virenque among its hallowed ranks, directly before the 1998 Tour de France exacerbated the long-running suspicions in the legitimacy of the event and the sport of cycling. In the wake of the scandal-marred tour, the dominance of the race by the stoic cancer-surviving American Lance Armstrong did little to improve the image of a sporting event that had become frighteningly predictable.
Amaury Sports Organization weighed the benefits of the UCI proposal carefully. The brainchild of outgoing UCI President Hein Verbruggen, the ProTour was envisioned as a more well-rounded version of the defunct UCI World Cup. The ProTour would crown at the end of the season the best rider in all disciplines from May to October. Further, the current trend in cycling of corporations making short-term sponsorship commitments was causing many teams to incur financial troubles and dissolve. Because teams could cherry-pick their schedules, some of the best riders were avoiding many major races. The parable of Lance Armstrong, a rider who excelled on French roads in July with a singular desire that failed to transfer to the rest of the racing calendar, was setting a precedent in bicycle racing that only certain races were of value. The UCI, by developing a racing schedule in which the top twenty teams are required to send a full squad to every one of the twenty-seven races, intended to create an environment where corporate sponsors would feel safe investing for longer periods of time. It would also ensure that all the most-historic races in Europe would be competed by a full peloton of world-class cyclists.
The day before the ProTour was introduced to the world in the waning days of 2004, media mogul Philippe Amaury went to ASO director Patrice Clerc with his reservations about the nascent ProTour. "Hold on," Amaury reportedly told Clerc, "you're giving away our assets. If you sign that paper you are out of a job." Amaury had built the family fortune by acquiring assets; he was unlikely to cave to altruistic entreaties to hand over participation rights for his flagship race to the world governing body. Thus was born the rift between the big-race organizers and the UCI.
ASO has long been in favor of paring back the quantity of teams in the ProTour. Advocating an eighteen- or even sixteen-team calendar since before its inception, ASO is indignant on its right to maintain some modicum of control over participation in its event. Because of its controlling interest in the biggest race of the season, ASO finds itself in a prime negotiating position. Without the Tour de France and other races ASO provide to the ProTour calendar, the league would quickly lose much of its legitimacy as the elite cycling schedule. Further, because cycling and especially the Tour de France have been crippled by increased doping allegations over the past decade, ASO wished to maintain tight control over its long-term investment. As the preeminent stage race, the Tour de France is a marketing marvel. By losing its ability to allow all the world's teams to dream about inclusion in the race, the Tour was providing marketing fuel for the UCI while simultaneously neutering much of its own money-generating power.
Cycling faced a great blow last season immediately before its largest showcase event. The unrivaled history of the race and its myriad dramatic landscapes make it the pinnacle and the zenith of the cycling calendar. Unfortunately, that also makes it the most damning time of the season for doping allegations to reveal their ugly faces. And, eight years after the Festina scandal revealed widespread team-sponsored doping practices among the world's top squads, an even-darker scandal ballooned out from a Spanish investigation to cut down the principal challengers in the biggest tour of the year before they had taken but one pedal stroke. Operacion Puerto, a long-running investigation by the Spanish Guardia Civil into the alleged doping practices of Doctor Eufemaino Fuentes and his nefarious ties to sport, revealed the names of nine riders named to Tour rosters. Immediately banned from competition pending further inquiry, the riders included five-star hopefuls Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich. But the worst result of the revelations was the expulsion of Astana.
After Liberty Seguros, headed by incriminated director Manolo Saiz, was decimated by the implications of this investigation, the team sponsor withdrew all its funding from the team. A Spanish subsidiary of financial giant Liberty Mutual, Liberty Seguros was watching with disdain as new information linked their company with widespread blood-and-pharmaceutical doping. Tired of the bad press, the company severed its ties with professional cycling. Soon after, German co-sponsor Wurth followed suit and also withdrew. But the team still would not die. Through the efforts of new superstar Alexandre Vinokourov, the team found a consortium of Kazakh businesses to sponsor the team under the name of the Kazakh capital city, Astana. The team appeared ready to move on and resume racing under new team colors and a renewed fire to prove itself clean and competitive. When five of its riders were denied entry into the Tour, it dashed all these hopes. Because UCI regulations require a team to field at least six starters at the start of a grand (three-week) tour, and implicated riders were not allowed to be replaced by their teams, Astana was left out of the field.
The Tour, itself trying to right its ship following the stormy revelations, tried to get back to its forte: racing. A wide-open race renewed public interest as no one rider appeared poised to capitalize on the absence of three main protagonists. The maillot jaune passed back and forth as riders rose to exalted heights and experienced the full measure of defeat only to claw back into contention. Spaniard Oscar Pereiro and American Floyd Landis battled to the penultimate day, each a testament to both the limits of athleticism and the power of perseverance. Providing highlight-reel drama for even non-cycling fans, the 2006 Tour de France was a success despite - or perhaps because of - the lack of a proven champion in the field. Even the subsequent revelations of potential drug use by both Landis and Pereiro (the former in jeopardy of forced retirement, the latter exonerated of guilt) could not taint the thrill of the moment. The race, at least this particular race, has always proven to be bigger than any one rider. Founded in 1903 as a promotional tool for a newspaper - L'Auto, later L'Equipe - the Tour has always been seen as the decisive test of human endurance. It had never been shy to punish unsporting tactics, and it has long held a powerful influence on the changes within cycling.
The combination of this high public perception of the race, coupled with the UCI's repeated ignorance of the organizer position, have led ASO to take drastic steps to make its case finally be heard. ASO fired back in the only avenue left for rebuttal. In announcing the teams invited to participate in Paris-Nice, ASO stated that only the eighteen ProTour teams remaining from last season would receive automatic berths. This left Astana and Unibet in limbo. Astana, with marquee headliner and two-time Paris-Nice champion Alexandre Vinokourov in its ranks, received a wild-card invitation. Unibet, lacking such a proven winner, was left staring in from outside. Rebuffed by Amaury Sports Organization, Unibet turned to the UCI for assistance in seeking justice and entry in line with their ProTour investment. The UCI released a carefully-worded diatribe condemning the actions of ASO. Going further, the international cycling body banned all ProTour teams from starting the "Race to the Sun". Threatening fines and sanctions to disobedient teams, the UCI prepared for a momentous showdown. It appeared then that the UCI was ready to go down swinging for its nascent league.
UNIBET.COM THROWS LOADED DICE
The first peals of the funerary bell ring for Unibet.com. A Swedish-Belgian cycling team formerly operated as MrBookmaker.com, Unibet.com is a victim of a system into which it paid its way this offseason only to be kicked to the curb upon receipt of their funds. Certainly, it should come as no big surprise. Even last season, when the team led the UCI European Continental rankings (one step below the elite ProTour), its exclusion from all three grand tours led team general manager Koen Terryn to announce in May, "[Missing the Tour] is a huge disappointment and we cannot risk to be treated like this again next year. The only way to make sure we're selected is to join the ProTour." Results alone could not earn Unibet.com a starting position at many of the major races, as the twenty-seven largest races had an agreement with the UCI to proffer automatic entry to twenty ProTour teams. Gaining entry to only ten of the twenty-seven races (Ronde van Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallone, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Eindhoven Team Time Trial, Eneco Tour, GP Ouest France-Plouay, and Paris-Tours), Unibet.com was dissatisfied with the seemingly-closed system which prohibited them from racing the full extent of their desired calendar. So, when a slot opened due to the dissolution of the Swiss Phonak team, Unibet.com wasted no time in applying for ProTour membership. On 15 December 2006, their request was granted. A four-year license was rewarded to the team in recognition of its record in European Continental competition.
The team's 2006 campaign was, by necessity or design, crafted around the one-day classics. Missing only Milano-San Remo in the spring and the Giro di Lombardia in the fall, Unibet.com was invited to a majority of the grand classics. With sprinter Baden Cooke on form, the team took twenty-first at Flanders, fourteenth at Wevelgem and seventeenth at Roubaix. Despite this success, the team was not invited to any major tours. Indeed, they earned entrance into only one ProTour one-week stage race, the Eneco Tour. So, because they were never invited to participate in tours, the team never built a strong stage-race squad within their roster. With Cooke joined by sprinter Marco Zanotti, feisty French firebug Jimmy Casper, and Venezuelan mountain goat Jose Rujano, the team is filled with specialists largely incapable of withstanding the rigors and excelling in all the challenges of a grand tour. Because other Continental teams from the host nation could provide a similar roster makeup, Unibet.com was always denied access to build a stronger tour team.
This season was supposed to be different. With its elevated ProTour status, Unibet.com began to build its team around Cooke for the classics and Rujano for the stage races. Presenting several new riders to bolster its squad, the team was excited by its prospects heading into the 2007 season. But, still simmering, were animosities far beyond the control of the Swedish outfit. It seems that, regardless of how much money a team spends to secure its position in the highest echelons of professional cycling, preconceptions can derail a season before it even begins.
A TECHNICALITY TOPPLES JUSTICE
Amaury Sports Organization and the other race organizers have legitimate reasons for opposing the growing influence (or lack thereof) of the ProTour. Losing three-quarters of their wild-card bargaining chips to the mandated participation of all ProTour teams, ASO, RCS and Unipublic have effectively forfeited much of their financial and organizational freedom over the previous two seasons. Taking a stand for these reasons would be excusable and even laudable; the logic presented by ASO for excluding Unibet.com from Paris-Nice is both insulting and hypocritical. Citing a century-old law banning foreign gambling and lottery advertising in French sporting events, ASO allied themselves with the French Cycling Federation in declaring Paris-Nice a non-ProTour race and refusing an invitation to Unibet. But the precedent has already been set by ASO regarding this law: Belgian lottery-sponsored Davitamon-Lotto (now Predictor-Lotto) continues to appear at ASO-operated races freely, without any removal of the Lotto logo. This example should be enough to exempt Unibet from this law under European Union free business laws. But a more-personal precedent has also been set regarding this issue. The Unibet.com team, as well as its previous incarnation as MrBookmaker.com, participated in the French ASO-run Paris-Roubaix race in both pre-ProTour incarnations as well as the 2005 and 2006 races.
If it was perfectly legal for the team to run an ASO race on French soil in Unibet.com uniforms a year ago, then what legitimate claim can be made that it is now illegal under a centuries-old statute? Little has been made of this fact by the media during the ongoing battle between ASO and the UCI regarding ProTour membership and status. Unibet, distraught by its ostracism from ASO-managed events, has made much of its willingness to race in uniforms unmarked by their gambling sponsor when on French roads. But it has said nothing of the fact that it has been accepted and raced before with a gambling-site sponsor on its jersey. It seems ludicrous that the law has suddenly changed. Unibet.com has become the sacrificial lamb to sow the seeds of peace between ProTour organizers and Amaury Sports Organization for another cycling season. The illegitimacy that much of the world perceives from the sport of cycling is only perpetuated by such gross lack of unity among the sport's concerned groups. Without codified, enforceable rules governing races, teams and riders, the UCI can never present a legitimate racing league to the world. Without the willing participation and cooperation of race organizers such as Amaury, the UCI lacks the historical authority of the ProTour as the elite cycling calendar. Caught in this paradox, the UCI offered up its new ProTour entries and effectively cancelled their membership for half the calendar without returning half their investment.
Where the UCI made its most-pivotal error was not in making concessions to Amaury Sports Organization and the other big-time race organizers. The UCI needs races like the Tour de France, Milano-San Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege to provide greater legitimacy to its ProTour label. But, by turning its back on Unibet and Astana, two teams with a combined investment of over eighty-million dollars in the long-term success of the ProTour, the UCI set a precedent that the races are more important than the teams and riders. The UCI has caved in to their newest demands much as it has caved every other time over the previous two years. Rubbing salt into the wounds opened by Unibet's exclusion from Paris-Nice, the UCI has now agreed to a reduction in mandatory team inclusions. New ProTour teams Unibet and Astana (formerly Liberty Seguros, readmitted under new sponsorship and managament), after paying ProTour membership fees totaling over thirty-million Euros (forty million U.S. dollars) each, will have to rely on wild-card invites to participate in every 2007 ProTour race organized by ASO, Unipublic and RCS. This has gone too far, and will spell the doom of the UCI pet project. As soon as ProTour bylaws established at the beginning were altered simply to appease race organizers, the rights of ProTour teams assiduously disintegrated. If a team can be denied access to races for which it paid many millions of dollars to ensure their participation, then where do the rights of other teams stand? By denying equal rights to each of its twenty teams, the UCI has set a perilous precedent which will make it harder to convince teams to pay their way into this poorly-regulated and poorly-governed framework.
WHERE CYCLING GOES FROM HERE
The ProTour, while a great concept, can only be as successful as possible with the cooperation of ASO, RCS and Unipublic. Without the races these three organizers control, there would be large chunks of the cycling calendar occupied with less-prestigious events. And, while the UCI decries that it is the athletes and teams that fans come to observe, it is the historic memory that races like Paris-Roubaix evoke in fans and sponsors which brings sustained investment and interest in the sport. The 2006 Tour de France, without Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso or Alexandre Vinokourov, proved that interest in the outcome of historic races remains high regardless of the pedigree or past victories of its competitors. The UCI must keep these races on their ProTour calendar if it is to achieve long-term success.
Subsequently, fans invest much time and energy in supporting specific teams and riders. Part of the main goal behind the establishment of the ProTour was strengthening team leadership and sponsorship so that fans could follow their favorite teams for more than just a few years. The UCI must find a model for its brainchild that does not antagonize the teams which invest so heavily to enter into this model. The current system grants ProTour membership on a four-year basis. A length intended to ensure stable sponsorship, this system nonetheless prevents the best Professional Continental teams from gaining crucial entry into major races without ProTour membership. Every sponsor wants to believe that their team has a chance to wear their logo up Alpe d'Huez or the Stelvio. Companies pay to watch their riders on the cobbles of Flanders, not on the broken-down roads of a second-rate race. And, in this closed system, only twenty (or now only eighteen) teams can dream of automatically being invited to these races.
The UCI can take several routes to bolster its chances of long-term ProTour success. Appeasing the race organizers by scaling back its membership is only the first step. To guarantee the future participation of sponsors and teams, the UCI must immediately refund the monies paid by Astana and Unibet.com for their entry into a race calendar in which they are now not certain to be able to race. The UCI negotiated these two teams out of its ProTour structure. Keeping their ProTour membership fees would amount to highway robbery and will only serve to breed bad blood between teams and the UCI. It sets a precedent that the UCI is more concerned with theft and finances than racing and fair play. If this becomes a reality, the UCI has no chance of maintaining its ProTour brand. Races will always find riders to compete; the ProTour only has a finite window of opportunity in which to find and keep its races and teams. Both the races and the racers are essential if this concept is to move forward from its recent ill-advised moves and become a strong and healthy elite league of professional cycling.
Thank you for keeping this article from being lost to history. Unibet.com no longer exists, folded in the wake of its inability to gain the proper respect due a ProTour team. The ProTour, in fact, is effectively dead as the top flight of cycling's professional ranks. If you would like to read more about what cycling can do to improve its marketability to the casual sports fan, here is my philosophy on the subject. But the sport lives on... throughout the years, no matter how it is configured and managed, the sport lives on...
Bigalke is a freelance journalist who has been writing for FanNation since December 2007. An archive of Bigalke's writing for FanNation can be found here. He is also is a contributing writer at Helium. Got something to say to Bigalke -- questions, comments, suggestions, derision to sling, vengeance to exact, commendations to render, or contracts to offer? You can reach Bigalke through FanMail, the comments box below or here...