The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) first launched the Pro Tour back in 2005 in an attempt to create a set of events which would showcase the best riders and best races in the sport of professional cycling. Before the Pro Tour there was the Super Prestige Pernod Trophy and then the World Cup, both of which were a season-long series designed to determine the best overall rider for a racing season.
I was very skeptical about the UCI's motives for the Pro Tour's creation. My concerns were justified when it was revealed that one of the codicils of the Pro Tour was that all participating races were to share TV revenues equally.
At the time, the only race series which the UCI owned was the World Championships, and they did a horrible job of marketing those races. We never got to see the World Championships on TV because the UCI was never able to create a market for them in the U.S.A. and charged too much for the rights.
The UCI did a horrible job of promoting the event. Highly successful races like the Tour de France give away, for free, those five- to 10-second clips you see on your local TV news of the stage finishes. Local stations rarely have a budget to pay for the quick clips, but the organizers of the Tour de France rightly assumed that giving people a small taste of their race for free would increase the overall popularity of the event, and that would bring monetary benefits in other ways.
The UCI, on the other hand, makes local TV stations pay for those same clips. The stations don't buy them, and as a result the cycling World Championships get very little air play and remain less-than-popular, especially in countries like the U.S. where cycling isn't a big-time sport.
When it was clear that the UCI had its sights set on the TV money made by the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), the company which owns and organizes the Tour de France, the Tour and other successful races balked at becoming part of the Pro Tour.
From 2005 to 2008 there seemed to be a continual war between the UCI and ASO, and the health of the Pro Tour had more ups and downs than the stock market. In fact, by the end of 2008, many cycling pundits predicted that the Pro Tour would not see another Christmas.
However, in 2009, the UCI and the Pro Tour reached several key agreements which put the race series back on track. That fact, coupled with the un-retirement of Lance Armstrong strengthened the Pro Tour during the 2009 season. Heading into 2010, I think we can safely say that the Pro Tour can be taken off of life support.
The Tour Down Under
Probably the best example of why the Pro Tour is working is Australia's Tour Down Under. Since the millennium, the Tour Down Under was always the first stage race of the season, but the start list usually lacked the sport's biggest names. Because of this very few fans outside Australia showed much interest in the race.
In 2009, the Tour Down Under became a Pro Tour race, which means that all the Pro Tour teams had to attend the race. In itself, that might not mean that much, a Pro Tour team could send a bunch of their lesser riders and save their stars for later in the season when the more high-profile races occur. However, a couple additional factors have contributed to bringing some of the best racers to Adelaide.
The primary reason is the scheduling. New teams to the Pro Tour or teams with a new sponsor for that season are eager to prove their worth. The Tour Down Under, being the first race of the season and not particularly difficult profile-wise, provides the perfect platform.
For example, for the 2010 Tour Down Under (TDU), Lance Armstrong's new Team Radio Shack has all the company's top executives in attendance. And after the new squad Team Sky claimed the top two spots in the Cancer Council Healthline Classic, a prelude to the 2010 TDU, team manager Sean Yates was quoted as saying, "It's a dream start."
Secondly, Armstrong's aforementioned first race in his comeback was the 2009 Tour Down Under. The cycling world was all abuzz about whether a 38-year old, seven-time Tour de France winner could still ride a bike. Crowds for the 2009 edition of the Tour Down Under didn't double or triple with the announcement of Lance's participation, in some places they went up tenfold. That's star power.
Before this year's race, Lance used Twitter to invite any cyclist within cyber-shot to attend a training ride in Adelaide. More than 5,000 riders showed up.
So, whether it is Lance, the calendar, the Pro Tour status or most likely a combination of all, Australia's Tour Down Under has solidified itself as a worthy opener to the professional cycling season. Keep an eye on racing in 2010, it's going to be a lot of fun!