Rohan Dennis’ victory in the Tour Down Under brought to a conclusion the first WorldTour race of the new season. The next will not start for over a month. Why?
The Tour Down Under is now in its seventeenth year and firmly established: a status reflected by its top-tier billing. Until the riders begin the Race to the Sun on Sunday March 8, however, the WorldTour will remain dormant.
The weeks before Paris-Nice will be filled with events organised by cycling’s two most powerful promotional bodies: ASO (the tours of Qatar and Oman) and RCS (the Dubai Tour).
The peloton rolled out in Adelaide for the final stage of the 2015 Tour Down Under. It will not reconvene for a WorldTour event until Paris-Nice begins on Sunday March 8. pic: Regallo
The sport’s third most significant race organiser, Flanders Classics, promoters of Gent Wevelgem and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, among others, will also help to plug the gap with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, though the race formerly known as Het Volk pre-dates the UCI’s WorldTour calendar and even its ProTour predecessor.
All of the aforementioned races - Qatar, Dubai, Oman, and the Omloop - occupy places variously on the UCI’s AsiaTour and EuropeTour calendars. Their HC status means, among other things, that the seventeen ProTeams are not obliged to compete, as they are in WorldTour events. In each case, however, they do.
Two questions are presented by the anomaly: why does the UCI not add these events to its calendar of top-tier races, or, alternatively, why does the WorldTour exist if the biggest teams are prepared to race in events beyond its ken?
Ultimately, the calendar is shaped by the supply of races with sufficient exposure for a team to justify its appearance to sponsors, or of sufficient financial inducement from the promoter that the sponsor’s budget is untouched. ASO and RCS have filled a gap in the calendar by exporting cycling to oil rich nations during a traditionally quiet month in the European season, when the weather acts as a disincentive to riders and spectators. Het Nieuwsblad’s prestige stems from its position at the start of the Belgian road race calendar, and by the inherent demands of racing, typically, in foul conditions.
While lacking the status of a Monument Classic, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has heritage, prestige and a start list filled with ProTeams. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
If the teams are ready to race as early as January, and the UCI is prepared to include the season opener in its top tier, then why not also include the desert races and the Omloop in the WorldTour? The answer is likely to lie among a tangled web of sanctioning fees and ownership rights: matters of greatest interest to the federation and the promoters, but pertinent also to the teams, riders and spectator.
The so-called ProTeams increasingly are faced with the fixture congestion that football’s biggest teams complain of. The solution, as with football, is expanded squads. This, however, brings concomitantly expanded costs, and perhaps ultimately a football-style gap between the richest teams and even their competitors in the top tier (having finished second and third last year on the Tour’s cobbled fifth stage, for example, Astana has acquired the services of the winner, Lars Boom. Astana’s gain is unquestionably Belkin/Lotto NL Jumbo’s loss).
For the riders, however, a break from WorldTour racing can be an inducement. Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) chose to begin his season at the Tour de San Luis, the latest of the early-season events, rather than at the Tour Down Under, stating that he did not want the stress of racing for WorldTour points so early in the season. With each WorldTour team possessed of a squad large enough to spread its pedaling resource among the pelotons competing in Australia and Argentina, none sacrificed points by meeting in San Luis rather than Adelaide.
Fans, however, are left short-changed by the feast and famine scheduling that placed the Tour de San Luis in direct competition with the Tour Down Under. You wait three months for a race featuring the sport’s biggest teams, and two come along at once…
Does cycling need the WorldTour? The precise composition is a matter for debate, but the existence of a calendar where the casual observer is guaranteed the opportunity to watch the best is of unquestioned value to a sport. The English Premier League, for all its pitfalls, is hugely successful for just this reason; similarly, F1 is a brand synonymous with excellence and the standard bearer for all motorsport.
It is equally important, however, that the most prestigious events are directly aligned with the federation, if a boxing-style debacle is to be avoided, where promoters have a choice of sanctioning bodies prepared, for a fee, to bestow ‘world title’ status on their bout. A series that compels the best to compete against the best is in the best interest of the sport. Where races exist where this is already the case, and co-exist with a sizeable gap in the calendar, it makes sense for the UCI to enhance their status from the current HC standard and include them on the WorldTour calendar.