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Under the hammer: Velon vs the UCI

In-depth
23 Jan 2020
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Words Richard Moore Illustration Adam Forster

Tucked away in one of London’s most exclusive neighbourhoods is perhaps not where you would expect to find the office of an organisation that is seeking to revolutionise the way professional cycling is run.

The office overlooks Hyde Park, is less than a mile from Kensington Palace, its neighbours include The Daily Mail and, since November 2014, has been the headquarters of Velon.

This organisation is sometimes described as ‘representing’ some of the world’s top teams, but it’s more accurate to say that Velon is some of the world’s top teams.

Of the 18 WorldTour teams who competed in 2019, 11 of them – Bora-Hansgrohe, CCC, Deceuninck-QuickStep, EF Education First, Lotto Soudal, Mitchelton-Scott, Team Ineos, Jumbo-Visma, Sunweb, Trek-Segafredo and UAE Team Emirates – are partners and shareholders in Velon.

The chief executive since the organisation’s inception has been Graham Bartlett, formerly UK and Ireland marketing director for Nike and commercial director at Liverpool FC. Velon now has 20 staff and, in addition to the office on Kensington High Street, has another one in Zurich.

In its five years, it has pioneered the use of data in races, as well as in-race footage, being among the first to put cameras and devices on riders’ bikes to collect data about power, speed and heart rates and incorporate it in live TV coverage.

It negotiates on behalf of the teams – not just its own shareholders, but others too – with organisers, it distributes rights and it has established its own series of races, known as the ‘Hammer Series’. These weekend events in host cities differ from stage races and Classics by being contested by teams, and with innovative formats of racing.

Yet it’s probably fair to say that the biggest single splash so far made by Velon played out in early October. Days after the UCI’s flagship event, the Road World Championships in Yorkshire, Velon revealed it had filed an anti-trust complaint about the world governing body to the European Commission.

The complaint was officially filed on 20th September. ‘Velon has asked the European Commission to investigate the way the UCI has implemented existing regulations and sought to introduce new ones that are designed to favour the UCI’s business interests to the detriment of the teams,’ read its statement.

Velon’s argument is that the UCI has hampered the development of the Hammer Series, tried to take control of in-race data for its own commercial ends and gone beyond its role as the sport’s regulator, using its power and ‘political leverage to seek to block the business activities of Velon and the teams in an incorrect and unlawful manner’.

It is a drastic step that will swallow up substantial legal fees and could take years to resolve. But the most important thing to understand about the feud is that it’s not really Velon versus the UCI: it’s the teams versus the world governing body.

The UCI or ASO: who's the real enemy?

Or is it? One former UCI insider thinks Velon ‘has gone after the wrong target’, suspecting that it is ASO, the owner of the Tour de France, that is really behind any moves to curb Velon’s activities and restrict its influence.

The suspicion is that the UCI, under its president David Lappartient, is merely doing ASO’s bidding – but more on this later.

In the Velon office in Kensington, Bartlett explains how relations with the world governing body deteriorated to this point and why Velon felt compelled to go to the European Commission.

There are two aspects to its complaint, one being about the Hammer events constituting a ‘series’, the other about who owns the data that can be gathered and transmitted from on-bike devices.

The first point is really about whether Velon can promote races that are not just one-offs, but which form an entire season-long competition.

‘The UCI told us back in February that the Hammer races may not be referred to as a series, but without any explanation,’ Bartlett says. ‘The actual word isn’t important but the concept is.

‘If you take the idea of it being a series away, it removes its special flavour. It’s different from saying that there’s one race in Stavanger, another in Limburg and another in Hong Kong. We did carry on calling it a series this year, because that’s what it is.’

The other battleground is race data. This has previously been a contentious topic, although it was a fight Velon seemed to have won – at least until February 2019 when the UCI passed new regulations that appeared to pass ownership and control of live race data to race organisers and the governing body itself.

When Bartlett and Velon heard about the new regulation, which they think is a case of the governing body overreaching and going beyond its remit as the regulatory body, they wrote to the UCI.

‘We told them, “There seems to be a mistake: you know these rights are with teams and riders,”’ says Bartlett. ‘Then we wrote to the UCI’s Equipment and Technology Fraud Commission and they said they hadn’t seen the [new] regulations.’

Bartlett believes that the UCI is trying to cut Velon off at the knees by restricting, or stopping, two of its main activities – activities that are potentially revenue-generating, and which may ultimately help it with its main aim, which is to change an economic model that sees the teams wholly reliant on sponsors.

‘The economic model has to change,’ says Bartlett, ‘because it’s broken.’

Contacted for comment about Velon’s complaint to the European Commision, the UCI would only say that it has, ‘to date, not been notified of the complaint referred to in Velon’s press statement of 1st October 2019. Upon such notification, the UCI will not fail to take all necessary steps before the competent authorities to dismiss any claim. In line with its mission, the UCI will continue to work with all its stakeholders, and in the best interest of the sport, for the new organisation of men’s professional road cycling.’

With Velon claiming that the UCI hasn’t spoken to them, and the governing body claiming Velon hasn’t spoken to them, it is obvious that there has been a complete breakdown in communication. 

In competition with the ASO

This is a relatively recent development, with the UCI under the previous president, Brian Cookson, having enjoyed a more constructive, if not always perfect, relationship with Velon.

Under Lappartient, who replaced Cookson in 2017, relations cooled to the extent that they have found their way into the deep-freeze compartment over the course of this past year.

The former UCI insider we spoke to claims that the hidden influence is ASO, which sees Velon as a threat. Apart from being wary of the idea of collective bargaining by the teams – whose pleas for a share of the Tour de France’s profits, or at least TV rights, have always fallen on deaf ears – it is Velon’s role as a race organiser that irritates ASO.

ASO’s portfolio is vast. As well as the Tour de France, it runs Classics including Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne, and stage races including Paris-Nice, the Critérium du Dauphiné, Tour of California, Deutschland Tour and a second Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España.

When Velon negotiates with a city to put on a weekend of Hammer Series racing, it is invariably acting in competition with ASO, and has lost out to them a few times.

For the UCI there’s a difficult balance to be struck in keeping the immensely powerful ASO happy while also curbing its influence to some extent. ‘What does any regulatory body not want?’ says the former UCI insider. ‘A monopoly.

‘ASO already controls a lot of the top races. If it takes over the Giro d’Italia, that’s it – at that point it will be in full control and it can just tell the UCI to shove it.’

Perhaps it is a measure of Velon’s impact and achievements behind the scenes that it detects forces working against it – although whether fans feel that Velon has added much to their enjoyment of the sport remains up for debate.

Blows to the Hammer

The Hammer Series events have attracted decent crowds and they have produced dynamic, exciting racing. Typically circuit-based – ‘But not crits!’ insists Barlett – they feature a climbing stage, a sprinting stage and a chase, which is essentially a team time-trial.

But almost inevitably given the crowded nature of the calendar, they’ve suffered from unfortunate clashes. In 2019 the Stavanger round coincided with a decisive weekend in the Giro; Limburg fell on the same weekend as the Dauphiné got underway.

An even worse fate befell the third round: Hong Kong, scheduled for 12th-13th October, had to be cancelled due to the protests that have dominated the city for months.

Meanwhile, a planned expansion in 2020 to Colombia – where, for the first time, there is due to be a women’s event at the same time – has been put back to 2021.

Quite apart from this, not everybody is convinced by the concept in the first place. That it’s a team event baffles some; although cycling is a team sport, it has remained the case that an individual crosses the line first and is declared the winner. The racing is not straightforward, with mid-race points counting towards the end result.

‘One thing nobody has ever said to me,’ says the former UCI insider, ‘is that cycle racing isn’t complicated enough.’

A similar argument can be made about the data. Is information about power numbers, heart rates and speed really likely to attract new fans? It probably doesn’t help that the use of data to try to add a new dimension to the coverage is in its infancy.

The in-race footage, meanwhile, has unquestionably added a new ingredient to the mix. And the possibilities, Bartlett argues, are not only endless but also the envy of the sporting world.

‘You always want to move faster,’ says Bartlett. ‘But look at what we have done in five years: we’ve created a new style of racing and we’ve brought in a whole set of technology that doesn’t exist in any other sport – you can’t get biometric performance live out of events in the NFL, ATP or Premier League, but you can in bike racing if you’ve got the technology that Velon can bring.

‘Our big goal is to change the economic model,’ he adds. ‘Have we changed that? No. We’ve seen it shift, but it’s not easy because it has been there for 100 years.

‘We’ve seen movement because race organisers – in China, London, the Flanders Classics, the UAE – have looked at it and said, “We should collaborate more because we’ve got a common interest: we should make the product better for fans.” And that’s what we’re trying to do.’

Bartlett says he is immensely proud of the use of data, which he feels can add to the understanding and appreciation of the top riders’ performances, and of the Hammer Series itself.

‘For me one of the best things about it is the way riders have responded. They love this racing. It’s full-on, all-out racing, right from the gun, and it celebrates one of the best aspects of the sport, which is the team aspect.’

Waiting for the fallout

Perhaps if it had more favourable slots on the calendar the Hammer Series would be more popular, particularly with riders looking for more intensity.

Alexander Kristoff is apparently a big fan, with his coach, Stein Ørn, who also happens to be his stepfather, arguing that he could never replicate so many flat-out efforts in training or in a conventional road race. It could potentially be the closest road-based activity to cyclocross, a discipline that has produced so many champions in recent years.

It isn’t clear at all how the latest round of internecine warfare will shake out. It isn’t even clear whether the European Commission will decide to pursue the complaint made by Velon. The first decision could take six months. Any subsequent case could then take years.

It’s ironic that among the goals of all parties involved in the business of professional cycling is to attract new fans and new sponsors with dynamic racing and a greater emphasis on ‘narrative’.

As the latest battle plays out, Velon versus the UCI – and if it wasn’t this, it would be ASO versus the UCI – is one narrative that the sport could do without.

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