In 2005, the UCI introduced major reforms to disrupt the Euro-centricity of professional cycling and promote the sport’s “globalisation”. Tomorrow, the 2.HC-ranked Tour of Qatar will initiate the 8th UCI Asia Tour season. Cycling iQ investigates the reform’s outcomes in the Middle East and asks a former UCI administrator for his take.
Sandwiched between Asia and Africa, the Middle East – sparsely furnished in general cycling terms – was bundled into the Asia Tour as part of the UCI’s ‘Continental Circuit’ reforms seven years ago. [For more information on the reforms, see notes midway through this article]. If participation by ProTeams is an indicator, the extremely well funded Tour of Qatar - organised by Tour de France owner, Amaury Sports Organisation – has been a standout success in the region. However, true development of road cycling demands structured pathways, government funded programs and – ultimately, if all goes well until that point – sponsorship dollars, to succeed. Has there been any trickle-down?
“Actually for Middle East, we can consider it in two ways” says Jamaludin Mahmood*, the UCI Asia Tour advisor from 2005-2010. “Firstly, in event development – there is Qatar, Oman, the Gulf Road Race, the Arab Championships (four races a year) and club racing. Secondly, it comes to development of the cyclist – Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) are leading this.”
According to Mahmood, individual federations are “working towards the development of cycling in their own country” but lack of sponsorship and government support remains a barrier as “’most (Governments) only concentrate on football - but this only needs time to gain more support.” At the very least, television coverage of cycling is provided by Al Jazeera Sports and Oman TV.
Interestingly, it was Al Jazeera that sponsored Qatar’s first UCI Continental team, ‘Aljazeera Sport Channel’, in 2005. After missing a year in 2006, it was resurrected as the ‘Doha Team’; recruiting riders from UAE, Tunisia, Syria, Brunei, Qatar and Algeria during its three year lifespan from 2007-2009, inclusive. Explains Mahmood, “they were just thinking to have a club team beside the National team for international events.”
Since 2010, there have been no UCI registered road cycling teams in the Middle East – not even at the relatively affordable UCI Continental level. The Middle East placed a lot of investment “on hold” during the sustained global economic downturn, but this may be too tenuous a link to sporting investment. It’s just as likely the UCI has dropped the ball on grassroots development as it focuses on the premium end. Whilst the Asia Tour is no longer under Mahmood’s stewardship, he optimistically hopes the removal of this UCI-funded function will not impact his own ability to grow the region’s races.
“The development of cycling in Asia since 2005 till 2011 was really tremendous” recounts Mahmood. “It was more than 100% development in every part including (individual) races – there are 33-34 now, and before it was only 15. Teams (have grown from) 7 to 26, host countries from 7 to 14 and Asian riders in ProTeams (WorldTour level) have doubled. I’m targeting to have 40 races in Asia within 2014/2015.”
In eastern Asia, complementary factors intrinsic to cycling’s sustained success – economic growth, infrastructure, government support, participation – are trending up and the UCI Asia Tour calendar reflects that. With the UCI’s “independent” Global Cycling Promotion unit focusing on high-end events – Russia and South America have been nominated as potential targets – the question remains if it is equally committed to pulling the Middle East into line with its Asia Tour peers across all three divisions.
On the other hand, with the small number of UCI-sanctioned Middle-Eastern races effectively being “lost” amongst a vast number of Asia Tour races to the East, specific development in the Middle East is easier to avoid.
UCI Asia Tour history
For readers interested in the history of the reforms, they are outlined in the UCI’s ‘Blueprint for the future of cycling’ (PDF; published Sep, 2008). Alternatively, a summary is provided below.
In 2005, the UCI launched a major overhaul of road cycling. The reforms, prepared between 2002 and 2004 in consultation with the major stakeholders, were intended to solve a number of problems that cycling repeatedly faced:
• lack of universality (to the extent that it threatened its Olympic status),
• overly dispersed and incomprehensible calendar, concentrating on just one continent,
• insufficient participation guarantees (for teams and organisers),
• unreliable television coverage,
• unstable team structures.
As part of the reform, the UCI created five continental circuits (UCI Europe Tour, UCI Africa Tour, UCI America Tour, UCI Asia Tour and UCI Oceania Tour) and one world circuit, the UCI ProTour [Note: now WorldTour]. For each of these six circuits, the UCI created three rankings: individual, team and national, along with distinctive jerseys for the leaders of each series.
A new team structure was simultaneously put in place : at the top of the pyramid were the world’s biggest teams, which held a licence certifying that they met very strict quality criteria ; then there were the UCI Professional Continental Teams, and finally the UCI Continental Teams.
In order to support the development of cycling on the African, Asian and American continents (by increasing the number and quality of events and teams) the UCI appointed three Continental Advisers.
*Jamaludin Mahmood backgrounder
Malaysian Mahmood was born in Kelantan, Malaysia in 1960. Forced from competitive cycling by a liver problem in 1981, he turned to coaching; first serving as junior coach for his state’s cycling team, then progressing to a national-level position three years later. After passing his UCI International Commissaire examinations in 1995, Mahmood turned his hand to event organisation within the international cycling scene. This included preparing the Malaysian national cycling team for the 1998 Commonwealth Games, fittingly held in Kuala Lumpur.
[on a patriotic note, this was a highly disappointing Commonwealth Games for Kiwi road cyclists who, in spite of some individual pre-Games bravado, struggled with the high humidity and finished well outside the medals – 13 years later though, NZ has six road cyclists racing at WorldTour level. Apologies, the scheduled backgrounder will now resume…]
That same year, Mahmood began working with ‘First Cartel Sdn Berhad’ – the privately owned operator of Le Tour de Langkawi. Serendipitously, before First Cartel made a disgraceful exit in 2006 – with the race being bailed out by the Malaysian Government in 2007 – Mahmood was selected to lead the newly formed UCI Asia Tour (as announced in this UCI Newsletter; link opens PDF) in late 2005.
He kept this position until February 2010, before it was retrenched by the UCI “due to financial constraints”, according to Mahmood. Since then, he has worked as a freelance consultant to cycling events in the region – citing the continued development of cycling in Asia as a key objective. Cycling iQ contacted Mahmood in Doha, on the eve of the Tour of Qatar.