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Vaughters: Tour owner ASO ‘is the big playground bully’

On a warm Tuesday in early December, Yann le Moenner stormed out of the UCI’s Barcelona conference in a dramatic display of displeasure, having lost a vote that most thought would shape the future of pro cycling.

Le Moenner, the CEO of Amaury Sport Organisation, struck back last Friday, when ASO announced that it would pull its events out of the UCI’s WorldTour due to its displeasure with the approved reforms — in particular, the new three-year WorldTour license, which would also guarantee entry to the Tour de France.

There is now a fundamental difference of opinion between ASO and much of the cycling world, including the UCI and many teams. The strength of cycling’s most powerful stakeholder only exacerbates that difference.

“ASO is the big playground bully,” says Jonathan Vaughters, owner of the Cannondale-Garmin team“End of the day, every high-level, highly funded team out there is not going to be able to continue with their high-level sponsors if they’re not in the Tour de France. I think most teams’ sponsorship contracts read along the lines of, ‘If you’re not in the Tour de France, we can terminate the contract.’ That is a very scary prospect.”

The direct implication would be that ASO has the power to eliminate a team from existence, unilaterally, simply by not inviting it to the Tour.

ASO sees things very differently. It favors an open model for the WorldTour, like the one used across much of the soccer world — with teams dropping out of or being added to the top tier each year, based on performance. Teams and the UCI favor a closed system akin to American leagues with permanent franchises, as in the NFL. ASO argues that cycling is stronger if teams must send their top riders to the top races to remain in the WorldTour.

“We simply do not agree with the planned reforms,” Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme told French website Velo101.com on Friday. “In this form, [the WorldTour] does not interest us. That’s why we prefer to register our trials as Hors Classe [HC]. Now, a WorldTour without the Tour de France, Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Criterium du Dauphiné and the Vuelta a España, it’s not really an elite timetable.”

The Tour de France is so much bigger and more important than any other race that an invitation to compete is a golden ticket for a pro team. Without one, snagging a major sponsor is difficult, even impossible. This influence is a source of power. And that power is increased if teams are not guaranteed an invitation to the Tour, as the new reforms offered for three years at a time.

ASO’s decision to pull its races from the WorldTour complicates the entire calendar for those teams. Decisions must be made: For example, if a team sends its top riders to Tirreno-Adriatico (owned by ASO competitor RCS Sport) instead of to ASO-owned Paris-Nice, will it hurt that team’s chances of receiving a Tour invitation?

“[ASO] can simply wipe $20 million and a hundred-something jobs off the map just because they don’t like you,” Vaughters said. “It’s a level of power that is, in essence, a monopoly in the sport. It puts them in a position of extreme unilateral power.”

Collective action could prove a worthy counter to ASO’s dominance. Velon, a commercial group that has pulled 11 squads together, is perhaps the strongest. But ASO’s gambit seems designed to disrupt any united front, Vaughters said.

“I think ASO is pre-empting those organizations from getting any stronger with this move, forcing everyone back into a subservient position,” he said.

“Velon obviously is very strongly unified and I think we speak with one voice. But that is 11 teams. I have spoken with that group, and I think that they understand, I would say we all have the same point of view. I think all of us actually have the intention of sticking together 100 percent. It’s just that sticking together becomes so difficult when basically you’re forced with the choice of stick together or lose your sponsor.”

A strong enough group of teams could boycott the Tour, perhaps even force change. But they’d have to be willing to sit out a year, or even longer, in hopes that ASO would acquiesce.

“It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult,” Vaughters said. “I always hope that the teams would be able to unify and come together with the riders to protect the livelihoods of the riders and the livelihoods of the people who work inside cycling teams.

“But so far we haven’t seen that in cycling. It’s hard for any team to make the decision of, ‘We’re going to boycott the Tour de France,’ because you run into the same problem. You run afoul of your sponsors.”

The UCI, too, has little leverage, but it can bring its own rules and regulations to bear.

ASO plans to place its races under the second-tier HC category, where races like the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge currently reside. However, a UCI rule stipulates that new HC races can only be five days long.

It’s unclear whether the Tour would be considered a “new” HC race. But Vaughters suggested that the UCI could alter its rule to require that all HC races be limited to five days, which he said “would throw a fox in the henhouse.”

Further negotiation and diplomacy will be difficult, mostly because the UCI and teams have already given up much over the last two years of negotiations. There isn’t much room for either to take a step toward ASO’s position.

“Quite frankly, the three-year license is considerably watered down from what the teams want,” Vaughters said. “It’s not as if the teams didn’t compromise and just ramrodded this through.

“The teams want much longer licenses than three years. In the teams’ best interest it’s 10 years, or U.S.-style permanent franchise. The three years is compromising, and saying to ASO, ‘Yeah, we understand, you’re a major player in the sport and you don’t like this, so we’re willing to compromise.’”

That compromise was voted on in Barcelona, and ratified. ASO’s subsequent decision to withdraw its events from the WorldTour boils down to, “We don’t agree with the democratic vote, so we’re outta here,” Vaughters said.

ASO, that “bully of the playground,” took its ball and went home. The rest of the sport now has to figure out how to bring it back out to play.