Tension between the UCI and the top pro teams is reaching a breaking point over the use of race radios in elite professional races. Things got so bad that teams walked out of a meeting last week in Belgium that was supposed to be a sit-down between the major players to hammer out an understanding. Instead of reaching a common ground, both sides seem further apart than ever.
Teams insist that radio communication is an essential part of their job and that it makes racing safer without jeopardizing the integrity of the sport. The UCI and others counter that race radios have snuffed out the excitement and unpredictability of racing and plan to ban their use in all pro races by next season. The fracture represents a larger divide between the UCI and many of the elite pro teams. So much so that there’s discussion among some powerbrokers of simply walking away from the UCI and creating their own breakaway professional racing league.
Sources have told VeloNews that the idea has gained some traction among some of the elite teams and that there have been discreet, closed-door discussions with potential financial backers as well as with some of the major races about the feasibility of breaking away from the UCI. One well-connected sport director said: “Right now, it’s more wishful thinking than anything. People are exploring the idea.
It’s a long way from actually happening. There’s a lot of frustration right now with the way the UCI is handling the sport.”
UCI president Pat McQuaid said he heard of the rumors of the breakaway league weeks ago, but cautioned that the idea would be disastrous for cycling.
In an earlier interview with VeloNews just as the tensions were heating up over the radio ban, McQuaid said teams are confusing their self-interest with the larger interests of the cycling community.
“It’s not a big surprise that they’re using the race radio issue against the UCI,” McQuaid said. “We are aware that meetings are taking place. One or two of those big team owners are actively discussing a breakaway league with venture capital to put the money up. This is a bit of a red herring. There’s a lot of talk about democracy, but that’s bullshit.
“The teams talk about the long-term vision of the sport, but their vision only goes as far as their nose. The teams are only interested in their own self-interest.”
Several key players within the teams have called for a larger voice on UCI rules that directly affect elite professional racing. Right now, teams and riders have an advisory role to present their opinions, but when the decisions are made, “we’re not in the room,” as riders’ representative Dario Cioni put it.
The race radio issue is the one that teams have decided to make a firm stand against, and they’re already planning on boycotting the UCI-backed Tour of Beijing set for October.
Other issues that frustrate teams are rules over bikes and technology as well as issues surrounding race scheduling, safety and the handling of anti-doping issues.
McQuaid said that the UCI is open to suggestions from riders and teams, but insists that it provides an essential global view of the sport.
“(Talk of more democracy) is an American view,” McQuaid said. “In the NBA and baseball, the teams and players are part of the organization. All Olympic sports are under a different model, because the management of the sport is separate and independent from the vested interests.
“All international governing bodies make decisions that are independent from the participants of the sport,” McQuaid continued. “The teams wanted a right to veto, and since they didn’t get it, they’re trying to blackmail the UCI. Now they’re talking about boycotting Beijing.
“They’re biting the hand that feeds them. Cycling cannot survive just on Europe alone.”
McQuaid also suggested that teams are confusing their own self-interest with what he described as the “larger interests of promoting cycling worldwide.”
He suggested that talk of a breakaway league is fueled by greed and nothing else.
“Going back to the AIGCP (the pro team’s association) and this business of breakaway leagues, at the end of the day, I have no problem with people making money in sport,” McQuaid said. “What’s going on here is that some of the professionals are trying to take over the sport. An international sport needs to be able to manage itself and the pros need to realize that it’s the sport that enables them to make that kind of money they’re making.
“They should remain within the sport to work to make it better rather than make a breakaway league that’s purely for commercial reasons,” McQuaid noted. “Team budgets used to be four to five million euros, but after we started the ProTour system, the team budgets are now 10-15 million euros. There are sport directors who now earn nearly 1 million euros a year and they’re getting greedy. It’s the UCI that created that platform and here they are talking about breakaway.”