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WorldTour reform: Much ado about nothing

Cycling’s years-long reform process ground to an unceremonious conclusion Tuesday as a compromise between the UCI, pro teams, and race organizers (especially the ASO) put the sport right back where it started.

For the last half-decade, through the presidencies of both Pat McQuaid and Brian Cookson, various stakeholders proposed ways to modernize men’s pro cycling — among them were shorter grand tours, fewer racing days, no race overlap, smaller teams, and an auto-relegation system that would kick teams out of the WorldTour for bad performance. The intention of each proposal was to improve the sport’s overarching narrative, incentivize aggressive racing, and, in the long term, improve the sport’s stability by attracting more fans. Many of those proposals were abandoned as Mr. Cookson began his own negotiations in the last two years. “Our view was the many of those earlier proposals put cycling into a straightjacket,” he told VeloNews on Wednesday. “It became pretty clear quite early on that these were not proposals that had widespread support.” Those not abandoned early on were killed in recent weeks, as the group of race organizers, AIOCC, voted 77 to 6 against the UCI’s proposals.

The various stakeholders met again this week for two days of negotiations meant to end the debates and determine how cycling would look in 2017 and beyond. And on Tuesday, the UCI issued a statement announcing the earth-shaking results of those meetings: The calendar will not be streamlined. There will be no shorter grand tours. Races like Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice will continue to overlap. “The existing calendar will be used as a base,” for the new calendar, the UCI said. In other words: “Nothing to see here. As you were.”

Race organizers, led by Tour owner ASO, successfully held on to what they have, and kept the door open to gain more: the only approved calendar change is the addition of even more WorldTour races beginning in 2017.

“We’ve come up with a range of proposals that are an evolution, not a revolution,” Cookson said of the approved reforms.

So what was the point of this whole exercise?

The UCI can claim a major victory: the approval of new three-year WorldTour team licenses, up from two years. That would benefit teams, as a longer period of guaranteed entry into races like the Tour de France would make the hunt for sponsors a bit easier. According to sources close to the negotiations, the ASO opposed this and instead wanted an “open” WorldTour system that would include automatic relegation, wherein the lowest-performing teams would be booted from the WorldTour each year. Teams and the UCI pushed back, arguing — correctly — that it would destabilize programs already on the edge of collapse.

This was one of a number of divides that led ASO to threaten last summer to pull the Tour de France out of the WorldTour. That the teams and the UCI got their three-year licenses was therefore a real victory. But to come away with only that, after years of wrangling over a long list of ways to modernize the sport and stabilize teams, feels a bit hollow.

The narrative of the last five years has been one of the UCI and teams pushing for major reforms and the ASO pushing back. That narrative remains — ASO is the primary objector, even to the compromise brokered this week. “I think it’s fair to say that I’m a bit puzzled by ASO’s position,” Cookson said. But it’s not all that puzzling: ASO holds great power under the status quo.

The race is now over, and it’s clear who won. Years of politics end where politics so often do: back where we started.