The Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) said today that it will withdraw its races from the World Tour calendar beginning in 2017, in protest over the reforms offered by the UCI which, ASO says, create a "closed system" for cycling. The objections center on the UCI's longer licenses -- now scheduled to last for three years -- for World Tour teams, a change which was made to give greater stability to the World Tour teams because among other things it lets sponsors know they'll get three years of access to the Tour de France, ASO's main cycling property. ASO feels like its race is its own and if they prefer the best teams, someone's long-term guarantee from the UCI should not be their problem. They have other ideas such as reduced team sizes that are in conflict with the UCI.
In the middle of this argument, again, sits Astana. Remember back in 2008 when the Tour de France threatened to withdraw from the UCI entirely and register itself with the French federation only? [And remember when all the teams sided with the Tour in this years-long spat with the UCI?] Then, the issue was excluding Astana, because of various Operacion Puerto connections and the conduct of Alexander Vinokourov, who had shamed the Tour in 2007 by getting caught for a homologous transfusion after winning two stages. Now? ASO says it wants to rely on "sporting criteria" to select the worthiest teams. I haven't seen any mention by them of Astana -- they're too smart for that -- but you can bet "sporting criteria" means teams who aren't under suspicion of doping, and for the past 14 months the number one team in that category has been Astana.
So, once again, it's the Gordian knot of cycling: how do we get the best teams to the best races, in the eyes of the best races, while allowing the financial stability teams need (consisting of knowing they're going to the best races) for them to be strong enough for the best races? I hate myself for writing that sentence, by the way.
Another question: is this just puffery? You could argue that the best teams are going to be the World Tour teams, that Le Tour can't come up with many "plucky outsider" Pro-Conti teams who belong at the Tour. So the outcome is pretty much the same regardless. Certainly if by sporting criteria they only mean wins and whatnot, the budgets of the World Tour teams should have them all breathing easy. But if "sporting criteria" means "no sporting fraud," then it really is ASO insisting on bouncing teams who don't smell right. And that... well, without any standards, it becomes a veto they can use at will. And you can see why teams would be scared shitless about this. "Some neo-pro popped a test for a bad supplement and now my entire financial structure has been blown to hell after working for ten years to get here?!?" Probably not where the sport wants to be.
My hunch is that since we're talking 2017, there is time to flesh out a compromise before this goes any further. Please feel free to add in any details I glossed over, and chat away.