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Elite cycling the target of Saudi-backed Champions League-style calendar

Cycling could be on the verge of a LIV Golf moment after Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) was linked to a wholesale restructure of the European racing calendar.

As the 2024 Tour de France was launched in Paris this week, speculation increased that a multimillion-euro Champions League-style format would be in place by 2026, with PIF cited by sources as a possible investor. The Saudi investment in several sports has been controversial and created rifts in golf after the establishment of the LIV Series, which harvested marquee names from the long-established PGA Tour.

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Elite cycling, despite a packed schedule, remains reliant on the interest generated by one race, the Tour de France. Much of the European calendar remains underfunded and under-realised. But the Observer understands that the Tour organisation, which also owns several other major races, remains resistant to the proposal, at least for now.

However, Saudi Arabian money has already invested in other sports events owned by ASO, the promoter of the Tour, including a multimillion-dollar backing of motor sport’s Dakar Rally, bringing a “much-needed financial respite” to ASO.

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The proposal, currently only for men’s racing, to create a season-long league of prestige events, has been put forward by a new organisation, One Cycling. It is being driven by Richard Plugge, manager of the Jumbo-Visma team, and Zdenek Bakala, owner of the Soudal-Quick-Step team. Several other leading teams – including Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos Grenadiers and America’s leading team, EF Education-EasyPost – are understood to be supportive of the proposal.

Plugge, whose team this year won all three Grand Tours – Italy, France and Spain – but still struggled to find sponsorship, has become a highly influential figure. He is also president of the teams association, the AIGCP.

On the RadioCycling podcast, Plugge said: “The world is changing around us and our competitors are not the other teams; our competitors are football, rugby, NFL, Formula One. We need to make sure we are future-ready as a sport. We have to make sure that in five years’ time this sport is bigger than it is today. Everybody will benefit from that.”

Plugge is among many in the sport who view the calendar as too labyrinthine for a general sports audience. “If we have a really strong league, with fewer races, really strong and understandable, then I think the value for everybody will go up,” he said.

The idea to restructure cycling and increase its financial security, even without ASO’s participation, is not new. In 2012, Bakala, a Czech entrepreneur who made his money in coal mining, said he planned to invest €20m in creating a Champions League-style model for cycling. Plugge set out his own vision for the future in his book, The Plan, estimating that a budget of €600m would bring most of the leading races within a new structure and also secure television rights.

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Plugge is believed to have been discussing his proposals with other teams, the International Cycling Union (UCI) and ASO since 2021. The ASO’s director general, Yann Le Moenner, declined to comment on the One Cycling proposals.

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Jonas Vingegaard, Sepp Kuss and Primoz Roglic cross the finishing line of the Vuelta a España’s penultimate stageJonas Vingegaard, Sepp Kuss and Primoz Roglic (left to right) cross the finishing line of the Vuelta a España’s penultimate stage. The Jumbo-Visma trio won the Tour de France, Vuelta and Giro d’Italia in 2023, respectively. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

The finances of cycling have long been precarious, with sponsorships frequently collapsing and many riders facing constant contractual insecurity. Jonathan Vaughters, manager of EF Education-EasyPost, is one of those who has long advocated radical change.

“This is not about anyone becoming rich – this is about stabilising the economics so that we do not run into situations like Jumbo-Visma almost going bankrupt at the end of the season,” Vaughters said.

“The stories go on of teams, including mine, that have almost had to disappear. This is about stabilising the underpinnings of the sport, which is good for everyone, so we are going to be very active and to push forward on this.”