Just browsing Cycle Sport, the same issue that spawned a wristband and counter-wristband not too long ago. What can I say, I've been busy. But I finally got around to their breakdown of the Pro Tour, both its problems and solutions, which made me think it was worth trying to sort some of this out. I've been a Pro Tour booster from the start, if only because it sounded like an idea worth trying. And the drug problem makes me think more organization and unification -- not less -- is imperative. But the Pro Tour has its warts, no matter how naively optimistic I... er, you may be.
- The Meta-Issue: Pro Tour vs. Race Organizers
No conversation about the Pro Tour is worthwhile without a little reality check first. According to CS, the race organizers have long held the reins of the sport, which certainly explains their dogged resistance to the Pro Tour. Nothing beats yielding power, right? And yet, the Pro Tour can't exist if it gives in. A middle eastern dilemma, if you will, where the choices are between an historic realignment and the obliteration of those advocating it. If there's a showdown (riders held out or kicked out of races), it will be ugly... about the last thing Cycling needs. Perhaps there's a way the Pro Tour can carry on without seeming to threaten the race organizers' bottom lines.
Verdict? Too complex, too close to call.
- Too Many Races
Probably the most legitimate complaint -- which we've recently spent time legitimizing -- is the crowded calendar, which at best stretches teams thin, and at worse encourages doping. Fans and riders all pretty much agree that several races belong on the chopping block, but the Pro Tour seems hell-bent on an NBA-style internationalization, to the max, of Cycling. Hence the Tour of Poland. Perhaps there's a benefit to this approach someplace, but I don't see it.
Verdict? Shorten the calendar by a half-dozen races.
- The Wrong Races
Corollary to the "too many races" argument... I like Cycle Sport's primary example: the Grand Prix des Nations. This is an individual time trial with a long history, and even if its prestige waned recently, its inclusion in the Pro Tour makes much more sense than the Eindhoven TTT. The team time trial is by far the more obscure discipline, and the Pro Tour could easily do without it, whereas individual time trials are one of the sport's most basic formats. You could argue that the Pro Tour has a couple dozen ITTs sprinkled into its calendar thanks to the various stage races. But those time trials are contested, or not, based on a rider or team's interest in the overall stage race. A single ITT, where every rider shows up to win, has a place in the sport. And putting the GP des Nations in the Pro Tour would restore its luster.
Verdict? There's endless tinkering with the calendar that you could do. Switching from Eindhoven to GP des Nations is about the only easy decision.
- Volunteers Wanted
CS suggests that Pro Tour teams shouldn't be forced to attend any particular race; they should decide for themselves. The example is Bouygues Telecom, which is well-suited for the classics calendar but has no business at races like the Vuelta or Poland Tour, and doesn't have enough riders or money to take such races seriously. Meanwhile, there are always continental teams who would love the slot, and would enliven the race.
This is logical on its face... but the problem is that sometimes dragging teams to races is a good thing. Back in the Lance days, Postal routinely blew off the Giro. So did several other northern teams. And each year, the world's consensus #2 race was an intramural affair. In the two years of the Pro Tour, the race has been won by Discovery and CSC -- with Italian riders, I admit, but the presence of the world's best teams, or at least decent portions thereof, IMHO elevated the talent and intrigue. Historically, the big teams have been too willing to cede important races to the host nation teams, and making them contest the whole Pro Tour has couteracted this tendency.
Verdict? I'll go with a watered down version of CS's solution: give each team a limited number of opportunities to skip a race. And limit the number of teams who can skip a single race, lest everyone abandon a couple races completely. More local talent and teams is good, but keep the pressure on the big teams so that, at each race, most of the world's best squads are battling away. If a team can't make it to 80% of the events, perhaps they don't belong in the Pro Tour. In fact, maybe the most sensible thing is to lower the number of Pro Tour teams to 15... which the race organizers would support.
- Grand Tours aren't like Classics
CS suggests separating the Tours and the Classics into distinct competitions. Speaks for itself, argued to death already.
Verdict? Nah... I think it's interesting to get a sense of who was the best overall. And it doesn't take a genius to look up the point tables and calculate who was best at one discipline or another. Besides, we have rainbow jerseys, yellow jerseys, pink jerseys... how many more can we stand? I say just one, not two.
- No "I" in Team
CS also suggests making the Pro Tour competition merely a team event, and scrap the individual competition. This is kind of intriguing... on the theory that we spend more than enough time recognizing individuals, this would be an opportune time to give some love to the team. Cycling is, after all, a team sport. And yet there's little effort to reward the teams for consistency.
This makes tons of sense. Strip away the White Jersey, and suddenly the Pro Tour team competition becomes a headliner. Looking at team performances over six months is probably more enlightening than looking at individuals -- who hold form for weeks, not months -- in this time span.
Verdict? I'd have to swallow hard, but I think CS's idea makes sense. And by leaving the individual stuff more to the race organizers, perhaps this would help solve the meta-issue.
- Shorten the Vuelta!
Sort of a random idea, but CS has declared war on the third week of the Vuelta. The question is, can a third grand tour sustain a sprint competition? Can the GC make it across the flat stages in September, when they've already got 50 race days or so in their legs?
Verdict? Whatever. Surely Valverde would support a two-week Vuelta, but Astana wouldn't. If people view the Vuelta as the Grand Tour stepchild, then OK, shorten it, but I'm not as convinced there's a problem.