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What Exactly Is the UCI?

Earlier today I took a stab at handicapping the latest Grand Tours vs. Pro Tours dust-up. One thing I discovered in the process, with the help of some friends, is that I don't really understand what the UCI is. I suspect I'm not alone, so I did a little research.

The name Union Cycliste Internationale literally means International Cyclist Union, but it's not a riders' union at all. At its core, the UCI is the union of the various national cycling federations -- all of them, from Albania to Zimbabwe. Its original members in 1900 were Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, and... the US. But again, these "members" were the national federations, whose job is to issue licenses and make rules. That makes the UCI the world's license-issuer and rulemaker. Fair enough: you don't want one set of rules for races in France, and a different set in Spain.

But to us Americans, that's a far cry from the kind of all-encompassing league structure we're used to in team sports. Lacking anything resembling a league, the sport has long tried to fill the void by creating a competition where riders earn points at certain races, toward a designation of a season-long champion. Starting in the 40s by various newspapers who owned two of the grand tours and several monuments, the "Challenge Desgrange-Colombo" compiled points and issued prizes until the organizers went their separate ways. Then came the Super Prestige Pernod iteration -- same thing, with alcohol sponsors, until the French kicked alcohol out of sports, whereupon the UCI officially took over and re-dubbed the competition the UCI World Cup. The latter version was limited to one-day races... but setting aside the details, the important point is that, as far as I can tell, the UCI and predecessors did little more than create a competition and give points and prizes to whoever bothered to show up.

All that changed with the launch of the Pro Tour in 2005. Among the ills the Pro Tour was created to cure were:

  • the homgenization of competition -- namely, all teams have the same schedule -- to make everyone's results easy to compare;
  • incorporation of the Grand Tours into the competition;
  • stability of sponsorship thru four-year contracts;
  • financial guarantees to assure riders get paid.

And so forth. In other words, the UCI wanted to go further toward creating a World Cycling League, where true champions of the sport are crowned through a competition that includes a set list of participants all doing the same thing. How to perfect such a system has been the subject of plenty of debate, but the basic purpose sounds like a healthy thing.

Back to the Grand Tour/Pro Tour conflict, what hasn't happened is the elevation of the UCI into a league-structure. The UCI may have the kinds of contractual agreements that would bind the teams to their side in a show of force [though I doubt I'll ever know, unless the UCI starts posting them on their website]. They could make this kind of power play, but have they? From their website, it sounds like they just screen top teams to see if they're worthy of an elite license. If so, then what the Pro Tour consists of is little more than a loose confederation of teams participating in a competition... just like the old days. The UCI talks about big change, but their actions look pretty passive.

If the UCI wanted to, they could harken back to their roots in licensing and standard setting, and argue that they deserve to be the forum for organizing the sport. The doping wars are the story of the day, and the UCI's job making the rules could be an entree to a bigger role. But so far the UCI doesn't seem all that interested in going beyond making rules, and letting the national federations and races do the testing and sanctioning. They've kicked around some ideas, but that's it.

So the question is, do the teams feel that they get something they need from the Pro Tour? Is this unity -- with the UCI, or maybe more importantly, with each other -- worth fighting for? Or is the Pro Tour just a longer route to a fancier license that everyone could do without? That's the question they and their sponsors are no doubt talking about a lot these days.

I guess I don't really know what exactly the UCI is. Maybe you can figure it out: UCI Mission Statement

UCI Constitution