By now many of you know that the Pro Tour/Grand Tour conflict is about to devour Paris-Nice. The UCI has instructed the Pro Tour teams not to attend the race, which is no longer a UCI event but a nationally-sanctioned race only. By letter the UCI demonstrates that the regulations under which the teams live clearly prohibit attending non-UCI events. More than that, though, this is the UCI playing its trump card, and up til now the teams have unanimously supported the Pro Tour.
So barring a quick change, Paris-Nice is done for this year. Now, even the greatest races get skipped from time to time, so skipping a year, or using replacements, isn't a huge deal by itself. But it is possibly the Bull Run of Cycling's latest internal war. Once the battle commences, where is it headed? Who will win?
Following, on the flip, is one distant, marginally informed observer's take on the sport's latest showdown.
The Cycling world issued a collective groan at today's news, no doubt. Battered by the doping wars of the past 18 months, the sport can hardly stand to tear itself apart a second time, can it? Worse, with rubber meeting the road, we were all just starting to have fun again after an ugly fall and winter. Why this? Why now? More on that in a moment.
On the bright side, unlike the doping matter, this issue will likely be fought out in plain view, with unambiguous results. It could drag on and ruin the season, or several seasons, but there are numerous reasons why a quick settlement is a much more likely outcome.
But let's say that the sides dig in their heels. The other two Grand Tour organizations have cast their lot with ASO and excluded Unibet from races announced to this point. If they maintain their solidarity, the Paris-Nice scenario will recur at Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the three Grand Tours, Giro di Lombardia, and another handful of races. Basically, the Pro Tour calendar will be cut in half, and not the good half either.
The effects on the Pro Tour, its teams and its riders would be devastating. They're already contending with nervous sponsorship and a fleet of riders who can't all afford to lose this much in wages. The pressure to gin up competition will be immense, but as we know, the sport is tied to its roots and there is no way to fully replace the beautiful races currently on the chopping block.
But as bad as that sounds for the Pro Tour, I still don't see any way the Grand Tours can win. Yes, a boycott of Grand Tour races would hurt the riders a lot, but the races could cease to exist, in the short term at least. Not only would the Pro Tour teams -- encompassing most of the top 500 or so riders on Earth -- boycott, but the races would have a hard time attracting the Continental teams or any other pros as replacements. I'm guessing these teams would have the same regulatory block to participating, but even if they didn't, the teams and riders alike would be loathe to be labeled "scabs" by the top teams they all aspire to join someday. Meanwhile, many races already face marginal finances, so it wouldn't take much for them to go under. Substituting a bunch of amateurs for Boonen, Valverde, Cunego, Bettini, etc. should pretty much finish the job.
The riders would be hurt, but they would muddle through. New races would appear in countries long starved for, and shut out of, the competition. [I have a devilish idea for one, but that's for another post.] Some sponsors will go away, but as we can already see in 2007, after the last year's problems, there's nonetheless a certain determination among the riders, sponsors and fans that the show must go on. In the long run, doping is a far greater threat to the sport's health than ASO's stance, and even doping hasn't stopped Cycling (yet). So if the two sides choose the nuclear option, the UCI wins.
Why is this happening? Both sides deserve the blame. Pat McQuaid has been a terrible choice as UCI Grand Master, there seems to be no thought too stupid to pass his lips. This is a time when constructive behavior -- however less satisfying than a nice, cathartic rant -- is what the sport needs, but McQuaid has yet to have a constructive day in office. He's also shown inadequate regard for the Grand Tours' legitimate complaints. But pretty much the same could be said for ASO's Patrice Clerc and, to a lesser extent, RCS's Angelo Zomegnan, neither of whom has wasted an opportunity to make a bad situation worse with an insulting letter or interview, and neither of whom is man enough to give the Pro Tour the credit it deserves.
If I had to hold my nose and choose sides, I'd still stick with the UCI and Pro Tour, if only for one reason: doping. The UCI brings with it the heft to unite the sport against its biggest threat, and to create the institutions needed for a serious defense. Meanwhile, the Grand Tours' vision for the sport is to continue the ridiculous balkanized structure that has willfully ignored unfettered doping for, what, 30 years? Fifty? And why do they want to stick with this system? Pride, turf, control. Fuck them.
With so much to lose, you'd think both sides would work it out, but another reason a settlement is likely is that IMHO the sides were never all that far off on the issues. The Pro Tour has its flaws, and if one views the Grand Tours' stance not as an alternative universe but a plea for reforms, there is much to work with. The races want fewer mandatory teams, either by deleting some numbers from the Pro Tour, or slimming down each team, or giving teams the choice to stay home. They want the chance to invite some local teams to the big show, which is a popular and sen$ible position. The Pro Tour's insistence on 20 teams seems a bit artificial -- when you consider the dropoff in results from the megateams to the Bouygues Telecoms, you wonder why the magic number couldn't be 15, or 18. Over time, a smaller number is perfectly reasonable, and until then, most races could get the freedom they want by allowing some Pro Tour teams to opt out.
I'm sure there are other issues whose complexity escapes me, but some compromise in the name of saving the season has got to be preferable to whatever fights are left.
[BTW, the Bull Run/First Manassass reference works, doesn't it? At least one side went into Manassass thinking they'd mop up and settle things in an hour or so, and when that turned out to be 99% hubris, the sides embarked on a long, monstrous struggle. Is this Bull Run? Or what the Union thought Bull Run would be? I digress...]