For the first time in four rocky years, the leaders of cycling's major race organisations sat down together in what could be the first step in a lasting peace between race organisers and the sport's governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI).
UCI president Pat McQuaid and the ProTour director Alain Rumpf met with Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, Giro d'Italia director Angelo Zomegnan and representatives from the Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels (AIGCP) at the Holiday Inn in Liège.
The two sides, which have been divided over the UCI's ProTour since its inception in 2004, were called together by AIGCP president and Garmin-Slipstream director sportif Jonathan Vaughters. While the meeting started off tense, Vaughters told Cyclingnews it ended on a positive note.
"We got things off to a good start," Vaughters said. "I was certainly afraid the various sides wouldn't see eye to eye, but it wasn't like that at all."
"There have been a couple pretty tense years - sometimes it takes a while to get everyone back on the same page. It was tense at the start of the meeting, but by the end it was very jovial."
The goal of the meeting was simple: to get the teams, UCI and race organisers to start a dialogue on solving the sport's issues and increase the sport's profile and popularity worldwide. The outcome was that all three sides committed to monthly meetings each of which will focus on critical items affecting the future of the sport including the biological passport and entry into key events.
During the meeting, all sides were allowed to air their concerns. Vaughters said the discussions "killed a lot of suspicion and rumors" that have plagued the sport. "All in all, everyone came away with it feeling that [each side] was well-intentioned and honest."
Eye on the prize
Vaughters said one of the main goals of this new cooperation is "to get clarity in how Grand Tour teams are selected - that there's a clear path that teams and fans can understand."
In 2004, the UCI attempted to compose a system under the ProTour in which all of the sport's top teams would be guaranteed entry into the biggest races. But that model failed to garner the agreement of the Grand Tour organisers. In 2007, the organisers refused to allow the ProTour Unibet.com team entry into any of their races.
In 2008, the Astana team was refused entry into the Tour de France and other Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) events because in the previous year, it had several doping positives during the Tour. The same criteria was applied this year to the former Saunier-Duval team, Fuji-Servetto.
Vaughters explained that the fight against doping, in particular the UCI's biological passport, is one of the key issues for race organisers.
"Organisers want teams that they feel confident in, that will not hurt the image of their event. Teams, of course, want assurances that they will be able to participate in the events their sponsors want and need them to race in."
"The UCI needs to manage the whole process and govern all the different procedures and enforce the rules as they're written."
Vaughters clarified that there will be no changes to the selection process until the 2011 season, after the contract between the teams and the ASO, which was signed last year, expires.
That contract was signed at the height of the war between the UCI and the ASO, when the Tour organiser decided to hold its races outside the control of the sport's governing body. It was later accepted into the UCI's regulations after a peace deal was brokered with ASO owner Editions Philippe Amaury last fall.
After years of plenty of conflict but very little discussion on how to solve it, Vaughters is looking forward to a continuing discussion and progress toward making the sport better.
"We're planning the next meeting, possibly during one of the rest days of the Giro d'Italia," he said. "The biggest thing that came out of the meeting is that the UCI, race organisers and teams will meet on a regular basis to air concerns and move the ball forward. It has to be a continuous process."
Cyclingnews will cover the 95th Liège-Bastogne-Liège live on April 26 at 13:00 local Europe time (CEST)/ 21:00 Australian time (CDT)/ 7:00 (USA East)