Michael Pavitt

No sooner had Italy’s Elia Viviani sprinted to victory on the final stage of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour that attention in the cycling world was beginning to shift its focus from the end of the road racing season to the start of the track one.

Following the finale of the Abu Dhabi Tour, which took place Yas Marina Formula 1 Circuit, the International Cycling Union (UCI) officially marked the end of the road season by staging the first edition of their Cycling Gala to honour the year’s star performers. The new event was a new glitzy small addition introduced by the sport’s governing body. Far bigger changes are on the way, however.

From 2017 the men’s WorldTour, the highest level tour, will undergo a significant shake-up with teams set to be awarded three-year licences rather than the having to apply on an annual basis. As part of the new licences, which will be open to a maximum of 18 teams, they will also need to meet 10 operational requirements ranging from anti-doping to financial and sporting criteria.

The changes follow a two-year consultation period which began following Brian Cookson’s election as the UCI President in 2013. The Briton admits that finding an agreement to suit all the stakeholders in men’s professional cycling has proved difficult but believes the changes are a “turning point” for the sport.

“The challenge has been bringing together people with very strong assets and very ingrained positions,” he told insidethegames. “The whole point of talking around the table was saying, ‘There is no perfect solution here but what we can do is move forward by trying to achieve a consensus'. That takes time.

“We’ve gone from a set of proposals which had sort of been approved two years ago, but would have been very damaging, to something that is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. I think that is going to work better for our sport than a big bang solution, which would have been high risk.”

One of the key hopes of the reforms is that with the cushion afforded to them by a three-year licence WorldTour teams will be able to plan better financially, which in turn would provide added security to both riders and staff.

Additionally,  Cookson believes the extended licences will attract more sponsors to invest in teams, as well as the sport, due to there being a better return on their investment.

Brian Cookson believes the reforms to men's professional cycling are a
UCI President Brian Cookson believes the reforms to men's professional cycling are a "turning point" for the sport ©Getty Images

While the reforms are due to kick in during the 2017 to 2019 season, Cookson stated implementation of recommendations proposed by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) report, launched to investigate the sport’s well-documented doping past, is well underway.

“There are only one or two of the recommendations that we have decided not to implement, such as running a mobile pharmacy alongside the Grand Tours, which wasn’t practical,” he said. “With night-time testing it is always going to be small numbers and quite exceptional, with it being intelligence-led. It has already begun and will no doubt continue in the future, but it is not going to be hundreds every year.

“What we have got now is a much stronger set of anti-doping regulations and penalties, partly due to the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) Code changing at the start of the year. We can now give bigger bans and longer fines, with the possibility of team sanctions as well.”

Developing men’s professional road racing has not only been a focus on the UCI, with the organisation Velon having been established in 2014. The joint business venture between 11 WorldTour teams has adopted the tagline “Making Cycling Better” and has targeted making the sport more exciting, giving fans credible teams to believe in and the use of new technology to show racing from the rider’s perspective.

The latter was in evidence on the final stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour when for the first time officially that on-bike cameras had been used during live television coverage. When the first images flickered onto the screens in the media centre a declaration, “This is the future of cycling” came from a corner of room were the Velon representatives had gathered, while a rather non-plussed response came from the journalists.

Introducing the cameras is an intelligent idea to further engage fans, although their use could be possibly best used for replays to show a riders viewpoint of an attack of sprint finish rather than for live pictures when some of the best action could be missed. I would argue their effectiveness could be boosted in the event the cameras are forward rather than backward facing, as they were in Abu Dhabi.

An example of this was footage released following stage 20 of this year’s Tour de France, where a camera captured a riders view of ascending the brutal Alpe d'Huez displaying the colour and the vast number of fans which would an ideal way to promote the sport. Alternatively, the video could also be used from an education standpoint to show fans how close they can be to the race and show more respect to the riders, with that same stage seeing the eventual winner, Britain's Chris Froome, being spat at my a spectator.

On-bike cameras could display the colour of the race as well as educating fans to respect the riders
On-bike cameras could display the colour of the race as well as educating cycling fans to respect the riders ©Getty Images

There has been a focus on the changes to boost men’s road racing, but there has been a clear step forward in the women’s side of the sport. The UCI, somewhat harshly, received criticism for the lack of women being able to attend the first Cycling Gala with many unable to attend due to prior commitments. Cookson, however, believes since his election, the world governing body have taken women’s voices “more seriously".

The Briton explained his view that they do not want to over-legislate women’s professional cycling by forcing requirements like a minimum wage at this stage, although admitted they wish to do so at the right time. He expressed his hope that the introduction of a Women’s WorldTour from next March, which will replace the Women’s Road World Cup, will further develop the sport. A total of 17 events are due to be held next year, increasing the number of racing days by 60 per cent.

“What we have done in terms of taking a women’s World Cup into a women’s WorldTour is to work with the women riders and the teams, to listen to the voices and say, “What is going to work here,'” Cookson said. “You are the people who are making women’s cycling happen at the moment, what do we need to do to facilitate, support and develop women’s road racing.

“In many ways there’s a much stronger spirit of collaboration and cooperation within women’s cycling than there is in the men’s, which has been much more entrenched for decades really. The women have been much more open to discussion and negotiation to push things forward, let’s run with the people who really want to do it and encourage and support them.”

With the reforms,  announced during the World Road Cycling Championships in the American city Richmond, effectively bringing the first two years of his tenure to close their implementation in the remaining two years will ultimately decide whether Cookson’s first term as President can be deemed a success or not.