Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Jan 22, 2016 – Last week, I revealed how Tour de France organizer ASO sent a letter to the UCI in September 2004 agreeing to the concept of the ProTour—and then withdrew the agreement two days later. It’s understood that the second letter was sent because the boss of ASO’s parent company, Philippe Amaury, felt the ProTour project would cut into ASO’s 70-percent share of pro cycling’s television rights fees. Though that initial standoff ended with a temporary agreement between ASO and the UCI to facilitate the start of the ProTour in 2005, ASO’s about-turn “started the war,” according to then UCI president Hein Verbruggen. “And we couldn’t win because they could put all the pressure on the teams—and they did.”
Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada
Indeed, the “team” issue has remained at the center of the conflict. ASO president Patrice Clerc never liked what he called the ProTour’s “closed system,” in which the 18 ProTeams received (and paid for) four-year licenses under the original plans. Clerc likened that to America’s major league franchises, unlike the “European system” that exists in soccer whereby teams are subject to promotion and relegation between divisions, and only the top teams of a top league qualify each year for the continent-wide Champions League.
Verbruggen told me this month, “The Champions League, together with Formula 1, are marketing wise the most successful international products in sport, and we wanted to have something similar in our sport. At the same time we wanted to use that system to remedy what’s wrong with the teams—and that should be the objective of [any] restructuring.”
But behind ASO’s objection was the French organizer’s need to continue selecting all the teams for the Tour de France—especially as the original ProTour plan called for 20 squads, which at the time would have left room for only one wild-card team at the Tour. ASO also wanted the right to “de-select” any ProTour formations that didn’t pass its ethical standards.
That was already a problem when the second ASO letter (which stopped its agreement with the UCI) was sent in September 2004 right after the Phonak team’s Tyler Hamilton tested positive for blood doping at the Vuelta a España. As a result, the UCI initially excluded Phonak from the 2005 ProTour, but the Swiss team was reinstated on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. That successful appeal was partly due to Phonak dismissing its top team director and replacing him with a former ASO staff member, John Lelangue.
However, ethical concerns were essential to ASO, which claimed that the UCI’s anti-doping policy was not stringent enough. That view was perpetuated by a string of scandals that tarnished the Tour’s reputation in the following years:
2005: a month after Lance Armstrong won a seventh Tour, Amaury-owned L’Équipe published a front-page story claiming that six of the American’s urine samples archived from the 1999 Tour had, retroactively, tested positive for EPO. Then Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the report appeared to be “very meticulous,” but Armstrong could not be sanctioned because there were no back-up samples.
2006: Nine riders implicated in the Operación Puerto blood-doping scandal (including race favorites Jan Ullrich, Alberto Contador and Ivan Basso) were prevented from starting the Tour—and eventual winner Floyd Landis of Team Phonak was disqualified after testing positive for synthetic testosterone.
2007: Several riders were thrown out of the Tour for doping offenses including crowd favorite Alexander Vinokourov (whose Astana team was then thrown out of the race) and race leader Michael Rasmussen (sent home by Rabobank for breaking the team’s ethical rules, after pressure from ASO). Those scandals greatly embarrassed ASO’s Clerc and first-year race director Christian Prudhomme, who said, “There’s been an absolute failure of the system.”
After its marquee event had been subject all these scandals, ASO’s resolve against fighting the UCI ProTour was stronger than ever—even though big changes were happening within the UCI. In late 2005, Verbruggen had handed over the reins of the UCI presidency to Irishman Pat McQuaid, who appointed Australian specialist Anne Gripper to head the UCI’s anti-doping department.
While attending the International Meeting Against Doping in Cycling held in Paris in October 2007, I asked Gripper about the UCI becoming the first international federation to introduce an athlete’s biological passport program. She said: “The UCI’s biggest challenge at the moment is anti-doping. They knew they had to do something different. They had the Puerto case and the Landis case…but I believe we can make some progress. [The biological passport program] is gonna make cycling look really bad for two or three years because we’re gonna get more positive cases, and we’re gonna have more high-profile media issues. I think we’ve got to steel ourselves to get through this period and then ultimately come out the other end towards a cleaner sport.”
Long term, Gripper’s words proved prophetic, with results from the electronic passport program leading to an increase in targeted drug tests on suspect athletes that ended with more riders being suspended. Short term, the sport remained deeply divided. ASO’s Prudhomme had attended the Paris anti-doping meeting and even shook hands with the UCI’s McQuaid, indicating that a deal had been done, but the crisis reached a peak the following spring.
In March, ASO announced that the 2008 Paris-Nice—and later the Tour—would be held as national events under the auspices of the French Cycling Federation (FFC), with drug testing undertaken by the French anti-doping agency and not the UCI. This resulted in UCI regulations being broken (with the FFC later given a hefty fine by the UCI), while both ASO and the teams completely ignored the ProTour rules (with ASO even barring the Astana team of defending champ Contador from the Tour).
McQuaid said that “accepting the demands of ASO means turning pro cycling into a private league controlled by the organizer,” though Clerc told Le Monde that “ASO has no intention of transforming itself into a new global cycling federation.” Clerc added that he would like to see the ProTour have only 15 teams, a clear ranking system, no obligation to compete in every race, a system attractive to fans and sponsors and great television coverage—“because we know how to do that in France.”
The climax of the ASO-UCI conflict came on the Tour’s first rest day, in Pau, on July 15, 2008. That’s when the 17 ProTeams present, meeting as AIGCP (the International Association of Professional Cycling Teams) unanimously decided to not renew their four-year ProTour licenses for 2009. In a statement, McQuaid wrote: “The UCI notes that the teams have once again succumbed to pressure from the management of ASO, whose aim for the last four years has been to destroy the UCI ProTour.” Indeed, AIGCP president Eric Boyer said, “I think the ProTour won’t exist anymore.”
Was the UCI ProTour indeed dead? Find out what happened next in the upcoming installment of this continuing story of the ASO-UCI war.
* * *
You can follow John at @johnwilcockson.