UCI president Hein Verbruggen has once again said that the Pro Tour will go ahead either with or wit
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE International Cycling Union (UCI) president Hein Verbruggen offered the latest glimpse of the future of professional cycling in Verona on Saturday, and it is one which could result in some of the sport’s biggest events surviving in self-imposed exile from the UCI Pro Tour. Verbruggen admitted last night that a day of intense negotiations on Saturday had still not convinced the Tour de France to embrace the UCI’s reforms of the cycling calendar. The organisers of the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espa¤a are also demanding changes to the Pro Tour blueprint, but Verbruggen suggested tonight that both races should ultimately sign up to the Pro Tour in the coming weeks. The same may not apply to the Tour de France or any of the races belonging to the Tour’s organising company, Amaury Sport Organistion (ASO). The ASO portfolio includes Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Lige-Bastogne-Lige, Flche Wallonne, Paris-Tours and, of course, the ‘Grande Boucle’ itself, all of which were fixtures on the provisional Pro Tour calendar. The Pro Tour will definitely enter into force on January 1, 2005, Verbruggen stressed on Saturday. As things stand, however, none of these ‘monuments’ of the cycling season will be in it. The reasons for the impasse were outlined in a statement issued by the International Association of Cycle Race Organisers (AIOCC) on Saturday. ASO, more than Giro organisers RCS or Vuelta owners Unipublic, are thought to harbour two major concerns: the lack of scope under the Pro Tour’s 20-team, four-year formula for promotion and relegation, and the question of sporting ethics. The Tour would also prefer an 18, rather than a 20-team Pro Tour. Verbruggen made light of these differences on Saturday, describing them as “semantic” and affirming that he was “sure that [the three grand tours] will end up coming on board.” He followed this with what could be read either as a warning or a veiled threat to ASO: “Anyone who undermines our plans to reform the cycling calendar will have a heavy responsibility to bear,” he said. In the absence of any comment from Tour de France president Patrice Clerc as he left his meeting with Verbruggen on Saturday, one can only speculate about the ethical conditions which ASO is demanding, and which are presumably not being met. Verbruggen summarised the Pro Tour’s ethical measures, which he preferred to call a “code of good behaviour”, as follows: “In short, a team can no longer sign a rider involved in a disciplinary procedure,” he explained. “It will also have to sack a rider who tests positive for heavy doping products and that rider can no longer be taken on by another team. Finally, race organisers can request the exclusion of a rider under legal investigation [for doping].” In a clear allusion to the 2004 Tour de France’s ‘infamous four’ of Martin Hvastija, Pavel Padrnos, Stefano Casagranda and Stefano Zanini, Verbruggen added that riders should not be excluded solely on the basis of newspaper reports alleging their involvement in doping cases. Hvastija and Casagranda were thrown out of the Tour mid-race following revelations in French newspaper Le Monde about their forthcoming court appearances in connection with the 2001 Giro d’Italia drugs inquiry. The UCI’s opposition to ASO’s plans to also remove Padrnos and Casagranda sparked the first rumours of Clerc pulling his race out of the Pro Tour. Should the Tour not strike a compromise with the UCI, cycling’s premier race would take its place in what will effectively be the sport’s second division, the UCI Europe Tour. This remains unlikely if not entirely inconceivable. The scenario would see the sport’s two leading powers opposed in a bitter row certain to undermine the three self-stated objectives of the calendar reform: to enhance the public appeal of cycling’s top events, to encourage increased sponsorship and media coverage, and finally to aid cycling’s international development. Verbruggen claimed on Saturday that the fact that 17 of the 20 available Pro Tour licences are already occupied already makes the project an unqualified success. The recipients of the remaining three Pro Tour invitations could be revealed as early as October 6. As for the Tour de France, Verbruggen finished with a defiant flourish: “The doors will be open for negotiation from 6am on Monday,” he said.