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Pro Tour In Crisis?

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So the question remains, how many pro tour teams will survive to race in 2008?

Astana is the latest team holding a supposedly golden pro tour license to see its future in doubt. This following Discovery's shocking fate, where it couldn't find a taker for its license, even with one of the most decorated and talented lineups in the sport under contract. And Gerolsteiner is utterly in limbo, awaiting word as to whether its Green Bay Packer-style community bond will be permitted to lapse (and if so, what will happen to the statue?).

Of course, cycling teams come and go, and in the context of the ongoing upheaval, losing four teams in two years isn't the biggest shock. It does seem like a blow to the pro tour license, though. The idea of the license is that of a golden ticket, an automatic entry into every race that matters (and then some). US team sports aren't a perfect analogy -- for one thing, the economic model is completely different -- but if the Devil Rays or Arizona Cardinals ever decided to give up the ghost, the line of rich guys offering to buy out their license would be around the block.

I don't see a lot of continental teams prepared to convert to Pro Tour status, though maybe that will change. For one, these teams have a set list of sponsors and established infrastructure; all they'd need is a dump truck of cash to make the fee and sign some of these fancy free agents, and off they go. Easier said then done; ask Bruyneel and the Tailwind folks.

But is this really a problem? Not exactly. If they get down to 15 Pro Tour teams (the number I have previously thought was about right), the competition won't suffer; it'll just vary a bit more from race to race. Salaries will probably be depressed for a while, but then the salary explosion seemed to match the incidence of elaborate doping schemes, so I can't get too upset about that either. What's lost is the sense of a closed competition, where 20 teams battle it out for all the spoils all year long, with just a few random teams for window dressing. Instead, the Pro Tour will find itself heavily infiltrated by non-Pro Tour teams, some of whom may make off with the hardware, on a given day or even in the year-long competitions. It's not as neat and clean, and it would cause the UCI to think harder about how they run the competition, but the racing will be the same as it has been.

[Of course, there's Slipstream, and by the time I finished writing this, there was already talk of an Australian super squadra...]