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The big squeeze: Can the 2020 UCI Calendar actually work?

10 Jul 2020

The racing calendar will cram three Grand Tours, five Monuments and more into the space of a few months. Should it happen? Can it work?

Back in mid-April, when cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, announced a revised calendar for the 2020 season, the idea was to offer clarity amid so much coronavirus confusion – and hope amid so much dismay.

Whether it is realistic is another question, and one that will only be answered over the next few months.

The announcement of the intention for pro racing to resume on 1st August came six weeks after the curtain fell following Paris-Nice, which limped to the Mediterranean but was cut short by a day as the coronavirus crisis escalated and brought Europe to a grinding halt.

The revised calendar indicates that the curtain will lift to begin act two of the 2020 season in the beautiful Tuscan city of Siena for Strade Bianche, which was originally scheduled for 7th March.

Then, over the following three months, major races will follow in dizzying, head-spinning order, with an itinerary that reads a little like a cycling equivalent of an end-of-year greatest hits compilation: Now That’s What I Call Cycling 2020.

These albums, always better in theory than in practice, can be like having too much dessert. Whether or not cycling fans suffer a form of indigestion, they will almost certainly lose their bearings as they contemplate Milan-San Remo in early August, a mid-September Tirreno Adriatico, Liège-Bastogne-Liège in early October and the Tour of Flanders a fortnight later.

Then there are the Grand Tours, all three shoehorned into those three months, with the Tour de France in September, the Giro d’Italia in October and the Vuelta a España from 20th October to 8th November.

The revised women’s calendar will also open with Strade Bianche on 1st August, with La Course by Le Tour de France on 29th August (to coincide, for the first time, with the opening day of the men’s race), the Giro Rosa, normally in July but now in mid-September, then the Classics beginning with Flèche Wallonne on 30th September and running through to a first ever women’s Paris-Roubaix on 25th October, the same day as the men’s race.

The news of a women’s Paris-Roubaix, after years of campaigning, was welcomed, although it also felt like a bit of a sop by ASO, the organiser, as if to detract attention from the audacity of planning to still hold Paris-Roubaix in 2020 in any form at all.

It is the plan for the three Grand Tours that, for various reasons, feels like the biggest gamble. Yet the very existence of a revised 2020 calendar represents a gamble – and also an achievement, given the competing interests involved in drawing it up.

But as UCI president David Lappartient acknowledges, it is conditional. Ultimately, it is not the UCI that will decide whether, and in what form, professional cycling can resume in 2020 – it will be governments.

Thus the new calendar is, says Lappartient, ‘as realistic and coherent as possible’, adding, crucially, ‘The recommencement of our activities will remain dependent on the evolution of the world health situation.’ 

The show must go on

What is more certain is that pro cycling’s fragile economy is being stress-tested like never before. There has been speculation about teams not surviving Covid-19. Some have already cut wages, and up to five WorldTour teams are said to be on the brink if there is no racing. Race organisers are also vulnerable.

There was some criticism of the publication of a revised calendar, criticism that focussed in particular on the apparently favourable treatment given to the Tour de France, which has been given what might have been considered the plum spot: 29th August-20th September.

Even Sir Dave Brailsford, the Team Ineos principal whose riders have won seven of the last eight Tours, lamented a lost opportunity to rejig the calendar and make the sport less dependent on its biggest event.

The Tour de France itself announced its new dates with some fanfare: an unforgivable act of presumptuousness and arrogance, according to some.

But the organiser of another major race takes a more pragmatic view. Tomas Van Den Spiegel is a former professional basketball player who these days is chief executive of Flanders Classics, whose stable includes six top Belgian one-day races including the jewel in the crown, the Tour of Flanders.

Along with other race organisers such as ASO (Tour de France, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and many more) and RCS (Giro d’Italia, Milan-San Remo and others), Van Den Spiegel and Flanders Classics were heavily involved in the discussions that led to the creation of the revised calendar.

Revised 2020 UCI Men's WorldTour calendar

1 August Strade Bianche
8 August Milan-San Remo
12-16 August Criterium Dauphine
29 August-20 September Tour de France
7-14 September Tirreno-Adriatico
30 September Fleche Wallonne
3-25 October Giro d'Italia
4 October Liege-Bastogne-Liege
10 October Amstel Gold Race
11 October Gent-Wevelgem
14 October Dwars door Vlaanderen
18 October Tour of Flanders
20 October-8 November Vuelta a Espana
25 October Paris-Roubaix
31 October Giro di Lombardia

‘This calendar was not easy to come up with, but it was important for cycling in general to try to keep on board as many organisers as possible, as many teams as possible, as many local authorities as possible,’ says Van Den Spiegel.

‘All of us have invested in cycling in the past, and what’s happened in recent months has made it clear that none of us really has a stable business model in place.

‘So it was really tough to get everyone aligned and keep everyone on board. Of course there is a certain order when you start these discussions. It is impossible to deny that the Tour is the biggest asset in cycling today, and then we had to puzzle everything else around it.

‘I heard a lot of critics saying that this was a missed chance to push through a reform [of the calendar]. Every year is a missed chance for reform, maybe, but this year reform wasn’t a priority.

‘This year every one of us was hoping to be put on the calendar and to offer as many races as possible to the teams, because that is the message we are getting from the teams, who are saying, “We will need double programmes for all of our riders to be able to ride and give our sponsors exposure.”’

Equally – and this is where some of the criticism of the Tour and others for having the gall to come up with plans to hold their races seems misplaced – organisers need their races to happen. It isn’t in most cases about turning a profit but about simply keeping their businesses running and their staff in employment.

‘Yes, economically we all need to return to competition – teams and organisers,’ says Van Den Spiegel. ‘Our sources of income are media rights, sponsorship and public support. It’s very hard to get that if your races are off, so we really need the races to be on.’

With a date for their main event and also two other races, Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen in the week leading up to the Tour of Flanders on 18th October, Van Den Spiegel and his Flanders Classics team can now get on with organising, albeit in strange and uncertain circumstances.

The first thing is to think about how an October Tour of Flanders might look. ‘We looked at the weather,’ he says. ‘We’ve had sunny conditions for the Tour of Flanders in the last few years but here in Belgium in April many times we have rain as well.

‘The conditions might be similar in October. It might be cold, it could be sunny. The only thing is that it’s typical to be in the spring and now we’re in the autumn. But we’re happy to be on the calendar and to have some kind of logic with Wevelgem, Flanders and, a week later, Roubaix: to have that narrative that people are used to. What the conditions will be, we’ll see.’

Hope springs

The weather is one thing. The other great uncertainty is Covid-19: will it still have Europe in its grip? Will parts of the continent still be in lockdown while others have opened up? Will international travel even be possible? Is it realistic to imagine that professional sport, along with places like bars, cafes and restaurants, will be able to return at all in 2020?

No one knows, but Van Den Spiegel and his team have to plan for the possibility – and he believes that it’s important to hope, too. ‘Now that there’s a calendar we are reactivating some of our staff; many were on temporary unemployment. 

‘We have to plan and start investing again in events that potentially will not be held. But at the same time it gives people some hope and I think we all need to do our best, not just in cycling, to return to our normal lives. It’s weird but at the same time we’re happy that there’s a goal we can work to – not just riders, but teams and organisers.’

Inevitably the planning involves trying to anticipate the circumstances and conditions that might exist in October. It seems unlikely, for example, that the huge crowds that are usually such a feature of the Tour of Flanders would assemble in October. And this has economic consequences too, with Flanders Classics having pioneered large ticketed and hospitality areas at the finish and on some of the climbs.

‘It’s clear that we are not planning to copy and paste what we do in the spring,’ Van Den Spiegel admits, ‘with fan zones and hospitality zones and tens of thousands of people in big groups, and with a festival experience at the start and finish and on hills. What we’ve built in Flanders is this hospitality model, and that is something we will miss out on for sure this year.

‘We are open to all types of scenarios, including where we have to spread the fans in a different way. Cycling is in the public space – so there is a lot of space. Of course we have tried to concentrate fans in the most attractive parts of the course but in theory you could spread them out over the whole course.

‘That does offer some solutions but we really need to think about this in the right way and adjust to whatever is required at the time. We have to be prepared to go from a behind-closed-doors scenario to whatever is allowed at that point.’

Van Den Spiegel was speaking to Cyclist in mid-May and, as he pointed out, ‘We’re still five months away. It’s less than three months ago that we organised Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, although it seems like a year ago if you consider everything that has changed since. Let’s see what happens over the next few months, but it is clear that we need to be very flexible as organisers.’

He mentions that road races happen in a public arena and over a large area, whereas other sports take place in small, enclosed arenas. It is difficult to second guess whether this might be an advantage or a disadvantage in whatever new, even if temporary, reality we will all be living over the next few months.

Revised 2020 UCI Women's WorldTour calendar

1 August Strade Bianche
26 August GP de Plouay
29 August La Course by Le Tour de France
1-6 September Boels Ladies Tour
11-19 September Giro d'Italia Femminile
30 September La Fleche Wallonne
4 October Liege-Bastogne-Liege
10 October Amstel Gold Race
11 October Gent-Wevelgem
18 October Tour of Flanders
25 October Paris-Roubaix
6-8 November Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta

Crowd control

It is easy to imagine that stage races might present a far bigger challenge, with riders, teams and entourages – at the Tour de France the circus can be around 5,000 people and even stripped back it would still be between 2,000 and 3,000 – moving from town to town, hotel to hotel. One-day races, on the other hand, particularly those that use circuits, might be more feasible.

But there will still be challenges and Van Den Spiegel identifies two main ones. ‘Importing the whole peloton to your country, from all over world, is a big challenge; and the second is the fans.

‘The first challenge will require very strict rules and agreements between organisers, governing bodies and teams. The second challenge is something you as organisers are responsible for and that you have to manage according to the requirements.’

As Van Den Spiegel says, Flanders Classics is preparing a ‘closed-doors scenario’ whereby the races happen without fans, perhaps on smaller circuits and by relying on increased policing coupled with the public’s likely disinclination to gather in large groups. It’s a scenario that the Tour de France is, publicly at least, refusing to contemplate – but it might be the only way.

It could be significant that Van Den Spiegel mentions a closed-doors option. But amid all the uncertainty, he is sure of only one thing: ‘We cannot just skip 2020.’

Unlucky for Italy

The new calendar and complexities over rider selection could see the Giro d’Italia slip down the priory list of many WorldTour teams

The revised calendar for the belated and condensed 2020 season creates a new kind of headache for teams and managers. How will they select a Tour de France team after less than a month of racing?

Will riders who had been targeting the Giro d’Italia still do so, or will the Italian Grand Tour struggle to attract stars if it is held in October?

The answers to the second and third questions seem to be no and yes, with Romain Bardet and Simon Yates both saying they will abandon their previous plans to ride the Giro and go to the Tour instead.

Yates’ director at Mitchelton-Scott, Matt White, believes most teams will ‘stack their Tour teams’ with their stars. ‘This year I think every team will have their main GC rider at the Tour and the younger, up-and-coming guys we’ll see battling it out for the Giro.’

White also anticipates that the best sprinters will all go to France rather than Italy. With only two weeks between the end of the Tour and the start of the Giro (but a full month between the end of the Tour and start of the Vuelta) the Tour-Giro double seems unlikely to be on many riders’ programmes.

This unfortunate timing for the Italians means that the Giro could, for 2020 at least, be the new Vuelta – the poor relation of the three Grand Tours.

Illustration: Eliot Wyatt

- This article was first published in Issue 102 of Cyclist magazine