BARDELINO, Italy, 28 September 2004 — The future of professional road cycling appeared to be hanging in the balance at the end of the first day of the World Road Race Championships here at Lake Garda just outside Verona here yesterday.
As the first races of the event were completed with youthful and happy faces filling the podiums, it seemed ironic that their futures seemed decidedly uncertain.
Tereza Hurikova, 17, of the Czech Republic got things off to a positive start winning the women’s junior time-trial title ahead of American Rebacca Much and Australian Amanda Spratt.
Then Janez Brajkovic of Slovenia upset a handful of favorites to win the under-23 men’s time trial crown ahead of Dutch favorite Thomas Dekker, a first-year professional with the Rabobank team.
But as they competed on a scenic sun-drenched course only miles from the romantic city of Verona, organizers of the three big Tours of Italy, France and Spain reiterated their staunch opposition to proposals by cycling’s governing body for a major shake-up of the sport, scheduled for January 2005.
The proposals by International Cycling Union (UCI) President Hein Verbruggen for a new look cycling calendar dubbed the ProTour is, say the organizers, flawed and needs elaboration and revision before being put into practice.
Verbruggen’s project would see 20 top cycling teams buy four-year licenses to ride in a new-look 28-race annual series, which would include most or all of the World Cup series and all the big Tours.
Its aim was to professionalize the sport further, solidify its image towards major media networks, thus giving sponsors more solid guarantees, which in turn would have a positive effect on the sometimes wobbly nature of teams’ finances.
However, critics say it will give the UCI too much power within the sport, push decades-old races out of existence and block any aspiring teams from being able to win promotion to the elite league.
Yesterday Angelo Zomegnan, from RCS which organizes the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France chief Patrice Clerc of Amaury Sports Organization and Eduardo Franco of Unipublic which organizes the Tour of Spain, released a joint statement which said they were still unified in opposing the far-reaching project.
They also expressed their consternation that Verbruggen had failed to take into account any of their views on the matter. “In the general interest of the sport of cycling, we ask that these reforms for professional road cycling be postponed so that all parties concerned can help to elaborate the project and come to a consensual agreement,” the statement said.
The race organizers, who also organize other potential Pro Tour races such as the Milan-SanRemo, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Paris-Nice and the Tirreno-Adriatico, also criticized the “speed at which the UCI has announced the finalization and launching of a project which is obviously not finalized, and which no major Tour can adhere to”. It added: “No satisfying answer has been provided by the UCI to any of our legitimate and repetitive concerns as regarding ethics and sporting issues.”
The disgruntled race organizers also confirmed they will refuse to adhere to a four-year license system, one of the UCI’s proposals for the ProTour, which they say will endanger the historical rights of dozens of race organizers throughout Europe. However their reservations, already expressed last week, have not stopped UCI president Verbruggen from showing his determined side. “The Pro Tour will go on with or without the Tour de France,” declared the UCI on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Germany’s Jan Ullrich has pulled out of tomorrow’s time-trial at the World Championships due to a stomach complaint, his T-Mobile team director Mario Kummer confirmed yesterday.
Ullrich, 30, the 1997 Tour de France winner and a two-time world time-trial champion, in 1999 and 2001, will be replaced by time-trial specialist Uwe Peschel.
Michael Rich, who rides for the Gerolsteiner team and for the past two years has won the GP des Nations two-man time-trial event, will be Germany’s other rider.
It was unclear whether Ullrich would ride in Sunday’s 265.5 km road race, which he has never won at World Championship level.
Ullrich, said to be in great form these past few weeks following his disappointing Olympics’ campaign, had been one of the favorites for the men’s 46.75km race against the clock here tomorrow.