Paul Larkin has been around the race scene more than most, and he’s seen his fair share of bureaucracy in action. So what does he really think of the UCI’s latest goings on?
Foreword: This article is not about BikeNZ / MTBNZ, but rather the rock the UCI has placed ahead of them. If you want to improve things, don’t boycott events or direct correspondence to BikeNZ / MTBNZ, who I’m sure are doing all they can to look after their members.
If you want to have a say, simply email your constructive opinion to Peter Van Den Abeele, who heads the UCI’s Off Road Commission: firstname.lastname@example.org
Before there was Sam Hill, Sabrina Jonnier, Julian Absalon or Georgia Gould, before even Ned Overend, there was the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire was large – it cost a lot to keep everyone in a toga.
Stay with me here – nothing’s changed.
The Romans collected taxes to finance the empire – not just from citizens, but from anyone with gold and fewer swords. Who got to collect the tax was decided at auction, with the Empire awarding the contract to ‘collect taxes’ to whoever promised to collect the most. The next bit was easy: get a posse together, sail off to North Africa and get to ransacking, with the goal of exceeding the agreed ‘taxes’. The excess ‘tax’ became the collector’s profit.
These last couple of weeks, the mountain biking community could be forgiven for feeling a little like a village that’s just been identified as ‘taxable’. In a letter sent to USA Cycling (USAC) clarifying UCI rule 1.2.019, Pat McQuaid, President of the UCI, has banned all  license holders from competing in any event unsanctioned by the UCI or its national level Federations. In New Zealand, that’s BikeNZ who have already begun instituting a procedure to deal with the fallout.
“All” is pretty clear in meaning, but the absurd implications of applying the ruling to every licensed cyclist quickly led to an informal re-clarification of the ruling by USAC . “All” will, for now, mean only those with Pro or International licenses. This is important, as a great deal of juniors, masters and other explorers will seek to race overseas each year, thus requiring an international license.
The penalty for breaching r.1.2.019 ranges from a fine of NZ$62-$125, or a 1 month suspension from competition. Repeated breaches may be classed as breaches of rules 12.1.005 or 12.1.006, which enable suspensions of up to 6 months and fines up to NZ$12,700.
So, Professional and International license holders are banned from participating in unsanctioned events. Commonly unsanctioned events include most of the fun ones: many Singlespeed, Cyclocross, and Gravity Enduro, and Charity events. On an interpretation applied by USAC last year the rule even applies to multisport events.
QUID FUTUO, PAT???
This affects every country. National Federations are bound to uniformly enforce UCI rules, so wherever you live, your national Federation is reading the UCI’s letter to USAC as though it were addressed to them. They’re probably not happy about it.
Let’s investigate why the UCI has a need for rule 1.2.019, a brief history of the rule, and what the UCI offers license holders in return for agreeing to such a restriction. There’s got to be a reason, right?
Let’s start with the UCI constitution, which after making clear its not for profit status reads:
The purposes of the UCI are:
a) to direct, develop, regulate, control and discipline cycling under all forms worldwide;
b) to promote cycling in all the countries of the world and at all levels;
d) to encourage friendship between all members of the cycling world;
e) to promote sportsmanship and fairplay;
f) to represent the sport of cycling and defend its interests before the International Olympic Committee and all national and international authorities;
Simply put, the UCI is responsible for the governance of competitive cycling. In no particular order, this role includes anti doping governance (alongside WADA), ensuring the conformity of sanctioned events with UCI rules (by way of training and providing commissaires), the staging of World Championships and the provision of the Olympic Pathway. The rest, though nice to read, is largely eloquent fluff.
These services are important. The UCI’s goals and ‘model’ lend a particular feel to sanctioned events, by and large resulting in structured, reliable races that have traditionally proven less than lucrative for organisers and increasingly challenged by novel event formats.
Indeed, the kinds of things that make so many events iconic – beer shortcuts and mystery courses at singlespeed events, flaming barriers at certain cyclocross races, autonomous starting and ordering of runs for Gravity Enduro, or the wearing of lycra singlets in multisport (which it should be noted is also a crime against fashion) all fall afoul or beyond the UCI rules.
There’s also insurance. We’re going to hear a lot about liability and insurance – it’s a great way of scaring people.
Racing bikes is as risky as it is fun, and insurance covering organisers, spectators, competitors and others is essential. The insurance afforded to event organisers and competitors via sanctioning has to date been the easiest to organise, and for small events, the most cost effective. Even in New Zealand, where risky behaviour is sponsored by ACC, events need insurance.
It’s fair to give credit to the UCI for facilitating safe events and cheap insurance. Still, no conflict need arise with unsanctioned / organiser insured events – it is not a prohibitive task to ensure every license holder understands the scope of insurance afforded by the UCI license. The choice to race unsanctioned races need be no different to the choice to go skydiving, knowing full well that your UCI affiliated license offers no insurance.
Lastly, we need to talk about the Olympic pathway. The UCI exists as gatekeeper to the pinnacle of sporting stages. This is no surprise; the UCI remains the only global cycling body, with former UCI President HeinVerbruggen going on to hold senior roles at the IOC. There’s not space to talk much about Hein in this article but suffice to say the picture painted of Hein by respected publications and athletes is not squeaky clean.
To hold Olympic aspirants hostage via rule 1.2.019 restricts their ability to represent sponsors, earn prize money, engage with their fans, and enjoy fun races. This reflects the UCI’s primary focus on road and is out of touch with the wider community seeking to celebrate and share the success of cycling identities. Rule 1.2.019 originally served the dual purpose of protecting smaller events and athletes from poaching by top tier teams, while also preventing unsanctioned events from benefitting from the attendance of the UCI’s star product: its athletes.
The UCI and sanctioned events serve an important purpose, yet no valid reason is identifiable for the extension of rule 1.2.019 beyond professional men’s cycling, if it is viewed in context of the UCI’s own Constitution, as opposed to it’s current ‘business model’. Internationally, enforcement over pro men is disturbingly inconsistent.
In order to better understand possible reasons for rigorous enforcement of 1.2.019, we need to talk about road cycling and the UCI ‘business model’.
The UCI has been fighting a war on several fronts for the control of cycling and its revenue while also being embroiled in some extremely unflattering reports of an historical misconduct. This ranges from doping mismanagement all the way through to allegations HeinVerbruggen solicited bribes from disciplines seeking Olympic status.
In 2011, it was reported that a consortium led by Jonathan Vaughters of Slipstream Sports (which operates the Garmin-Sharp Professional Cycling Team) and backed by the Rothschild financial group was seeking to establish a rival road cycling league. This league reportedly promised distribution of TV rights revenues to teams and a clean break from an increasingly tainted UCI. Rumours persist that this may come to fruition, underlining the UCI’s vulnerability. The loss of Professional (men’s) Road Cycling would, simply put, destroy the UCI’s power base, revenue and leverage over other disciplines.
Simultaneously, the UCI has branched from its primary role of governing competitive cycling to running commercial (for profit) events, as owner of Global Cycling Promotions. A clear conflict of interest exists due to the UCI’s role of scheduling, sanctioning and supporting competing events on its calendar, which many of its teams are obligated to attend. This model of subverting the not for profit model is ironically similar to that used by Communist Chinese state authorities to privatise profit.
The current UCI model can also be seen to compromise service to less profitable members – women’s cycling has been largely neglected for some time.
I’m no economist, but I learnt one thing from playing monopoly with my sister: if you can’t steal from the bank, the next best way to win is to own all the spaces (races) your opponent (licensed members) can land in (enter). To carry that analogy through, consider the growth of the non-Olympic format event market, which is rapidly becoming the most lucrative game in town – it’s a square you want to control. The creation of the UCI’s World Cycling Tour, in effect an attempt to annex the growing Gran Fondo market is a fine example of this strategy.
Rigorous enforcement of 1.2.019 is rapidly looking like a clumsy attempt to turn these new events in to squares on the UCI’s monopoly board, while perhaps setting a precedent for a larger push in to event management.
The difficulty is that ever since its genesis as the new cycling event, mountain biking has continually provided new events to enjoy: Gravity Enduro, Singlespeed, Slopestyle, all exist largely beyond the UCI monopoly board. Novel events have become popular with the riding public and sponsors alike, whilst showing an unwillingness to assimilate with UCI structures. There is a range of high quality, popular events catering to a growing market: people who like to have as much fun as possible with as little direction as possible, on bikes that are as versatile as possible.
The UCI’s ‘invitation’ to Gravity Enduro event organisers to become part of a sanctioned UCI series appears to have been rebuffed, with the unsanctioned Enduro World Series attracting many of mountain biking’s stars:
Leov, Cole, Irmiger, JHK, Craig, Joseph, Gracia, Moseley, Ragot, Blenkinsop, Minnaar, Peat, Barel, Lopes, Chausson, Vouilloz. As the list goes on, the motivations for the new interpretation of rule 1.2.019 become clearer: this is a profitable market in direct competition with the UCI business model.
One more thing: The UCI isn’t a business. As a non-profit organisation, the UCI’s current course could be seen to conflict with its Constitution. Prudent financial management is crucial, but always in the pursuit of the organisation’s purpose.
In light of the UCI’s current struggles, apparent strategic direction and historical leadership, it becomes clear that rigorous enforcement of 1.2.019 is unlikely to have any direct connection to the UCI’s Constitution or the best interests of its members. No explanation of the ruling has been offered by the UCI.
An est nobis ut futui a Romanis? What Next?
Rule 1.2.019 in its current form makes little sense, with its current application far from necessary or in the best interests of the UCI’s members.
With the UCI now removing Federation level workarounds, few options remain.
Firstly, rule 1.2.019 could be removed from the books or redrafted to clarify the ambiguities. Though sensible, this would result in a loss of income, control and face at a time when the UCI is fighting similar battles on several fronts.
It needs reiterating that the insurance / liability issue is a red herring – a clarification to all members of when and how their license affords insurance is a simple, cost effective process.
A second path could see national Federations refusing to enforce rule 1.2.019. Many federations will face conflicts with legislation in their jurisdiction, or be unwilling to sustain the huge political cost enforcement will wreak on close knit cycling communities. It is likely any refusal would be confidentially communicated to the UCI before the manufacturing of expedient ‘exceptions’. The proposed USAC ‘Domestic Pro’ license seems to be just this, despite failing to address the rule’s impact on internationals.
An outright revolt of Federations is unlikely, though at this early stage in the Olympic Cycle a good opportunity exists to do so.
Lastly, the UCI and its Federations could forge ahead with enforcement of rule 1.2.019 as is. The effect of such a move would likely see an exodus of license holders and sponsors, and in turn, sanctioned events. By forcing a binary choice, the UCI may in fact have created the possibility that sanctioned events will opt to become unsanctioned. This will depend on the choices of sponsors and athletes.
The UCI may have inadvertently created the factors necessary to seed a successful rival organisation.
It would be nice to be able to carry through my Roman Empire analogy to wind up this note, but I think we’ve already seen the result of carrying an idea past its limits, no?
Put simply, the UCI’s ‘clarification’ of rule 1.2.019 is another symptom of the interesting times in which we are pedalling. ‘Our’ not for profit organisation seems intent on charting a course that when viewed in context does not serve the interests of its members, seemingly pursuing a for profit ‘business model’.
For those not covered by the current definition of ‘all’, no immediate action is necessary. It’s a perfect time to consider what you like about events and to lobby the UCI directly. Let’s all keep playing our own games, even if they won’t readily fit on the UCI’s monopoly board.
It’s enough to necessitate a bike ride, beer and burger, no?
*On 11 April, the UCI announced enforcement of Rule 1.2.019 would be postponed until 2014 “with the expectation that all stakeholders… discuss and do what is necessary to prepare for the rule’s full enforcement in 2014”.