The road season is effectively over, Paris-Tours and the Tour of Beijing in the back window as riders toss their bikes in the garage for a few weeks and we fans either breathe a sigh of relief as we catch back up on life, or one of despair as there is no more road racing to capture our hearts until the Tour Down Under. Plans are already being made for next season - riders are reflecting on races past and how to prepare for ones in the future and teams have almost solidified their rosters for the next year. And this year, the UCI is doing some planning of its own as it prepares to reshape the UCI WorldTour structure.
Details are scarce for now, and the plans for change will not take place for the 2014 season. All we know now is that the landscape of the highest level of the sport will be drastically different by 2020 and that reforms will be gradually introduced beginning in 2015. The sixth issue of this year's newsletter published by the UCI Sport and Technical Department mentioned the changes almost in passing, squeezed onto page 3 in a few bullet points.
What is changing? The short answer is a lot. How is it changing? From what we can tell, the top level of the sport is being slimmed down, both in terms of teams and events.
Change begins with the organization of the calendar for competition. According to a single slide linked to in the newsletter, the WorldTour calendar will run from February to October and will have races on all weekends with particular focus on Sundays. What's that, you say? The Tour Down Under is out of the World Tour in the future? It sounds like that may be so, or it may be shifted later in the calendar. But if it were dropped to a lower ranking or disappeared entirely, it would not be alone.
A second principle governing the restructuring of the calendar is that there be both no overlap between first division events and no competition among first and second division events. In our present time, events overlap frequently.Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico have five overlapping days and the Criterium du Dauphine and Tour de Suisse overlap for two days. Other events come close, like the Tour of the Basque Country ending the day before Paris-Roubaix begins. A new push to have stage races (with the exception of grand tours) be no more than five or six days in length could solve some overlap problems, but not all. Competition between higher and lower prestige events is also common, especially during the Grand Tours. The Giro d'Italia overlaps with the Tour of California, the Tour de France with the Tour of Austria, and the Vuelta a Espańa with the Tour of Britain, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and the WorldTour races in Québec.
If racing is limited in such a way, it will be interesting to see how races move around, and which are demoted to lower status. The presence of grand tours each taking up three weeks - and four weekends - of the season truly puts other races in a pinch. Unless, that is, grand tours change as well, but that is almost impossible to fathom. So what will go? What will be moved around? And how will this affect races like the GP Cycliste Québec and GP Cycliste Montréal whose identities are built half on their spot on the calendar? The two Canadian WorldTour races come some two weeks before the World Championships and are used by numerous contenders for the rainbow stripes to fine tune their form before one of the most important days on the calendar. While they are excellent races in their own right, their character might change as the calendar is reconfigured, and this is just the beginning of the questions organizers and the UCI will have to grapple with under the new rules.
A second major change lies in restructuring the system in which teams operate. Today there are eighteen WorldTour teams, all of whom must meet the same criteria. Each team is required to participate in 153 days of racing in the current system and teams are frequently sending contingents to lower classification events like the Tour of California and Omloomp Het Nieuwsblad. Under the UCI's plan for the future, the WorldTour would be split into two divisions. First division teams, of which there will be sixteen, will only be required to compete in 120 days of racing. The eight second division teams will only be required to race 50 days of racing. Below second division teams, the structure appears the same with professional continental and continental level teams still distinguished from each other, though they are lumped together as third division teams. Teams will most certainly be free to pursue other targets in the way ProTeams do now, but the amount of racing each team will be required to do is much less.
One of the first questions that emerges is whether each first division team will have to compete in the same 120 days of racing. Could this be the groundwork for a system which lets teams barter and swap race entries, relinquishing FDJ from the burden of competing in Italy when it offers little appeal for the French team? Will Movistar be forced to send reluctant riders to Paris-Roubaix? Moreover, will there be overlap between the required race days for first and second division teams?
Beyond a simple restructuring of team obligations, though, the combination of fewer required race days and no overlapping or competing events could remold what teams look like. Rather than needing to be able to field at least two separate eight or nine man squads at many points in the year, teams will need fewer riders to meet their obligations. The size of teams could very well shrink substantially from the 26-30 rider rosters we are accustomed to at the WorldTour level. Teams' operating costs should fall as well, which may compensate in part for the lessened demand for riders from each team. With lower costs, teams will require fewer sponsors and we may see a proliferation in teams. Whether this is enough to keep the pool of active professional riders the same size is impossible to know, though, especially with changes in the number and organization of races vague at best.
In releasing only the skeletal details of reorganizing the sport, the UCI has raised far more questions than it has given answers. What seems to be emerging is a more clearly defined upper echelon of the sport, more and more distinct from those teams which will now be classified second and third division. Is this a good thing? Without more knowledge and seeing the system in practice it is hard to know.