Michele Acquarone interview part III: We were looking into a women’s Milan-Sanremo for 2015, Giro for 2017
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Monday, January 27, 2014

Michele Acquarone interview part III: We were looking into a women’s Milan-Sanremo for 2015, Giro for 2017

by Shane Stokes at 3:19 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews, Giro d'Italia
Former Giro chief on women’s cycling, redeveloping the men’s calendar and the need to shorten the three Grand Tours

Michele AcquaroneFormer RCS Sport COO Michele Acquarone has said that while he was still part of that company, provisional efforts had been put in motion to study the viability of running women’s races alongside major men’s events such as Milan Sanremo and the Giro d’Italia.

The news comes as a push continues to develop this area of the sport, with pressure growing on the UCI and race organisers to try to ensure greater parity within cycling.

Top competitors such as multiple world champion Marianne Vos and former world TT champ Emma Pooley have put their names to a petition calling on ASO to introduce a women’s Tour de France, while UCI president Brian Cookson has said that the governing body is serious about trying to improve women’s cycling.

Acquarone is also convinced that this area of the sport needs to grow, and said that he spoke about the topic in Italy in September. “I was invited to the UCI junior conference in Florence, on the Thursday before the worlds. At that time I had the chance to speak about women’s cycling, and to meet Marianne Vos. I told everybody from the stage that RCS was working on a ladies’ project,” Acquarone said to VeloNation.

“I asked my staff to develop a project about combined events in our races. I would have liked to have had men’s and women’s races in the same places. All the other big sports are combined, and I think that women’s cycling deserves more.

“Take Milan-Sanremo, for example. On the Sunday, the men will start from Milano at more or less ten o’clock, and finish in Sanremo at five.

“In my mind, there would be a ladies’ race starting from Liguria at maybe ten or eleven, and then finishing at 3.30 or four o’clock. So two different races, but on the same streets. I could have had the same TV structure, the same structures, the same logistics in the races.

For fans I think it is good to see two races on the Poggio, two races on the Cipressa, because I think that is better. There would be two races finishing in the same place in Sanremo. I think that is perfect as you can guarantee to the ladies a huge audience and costs will be not so much bigger.”

It remains to be seen if the tentative project will go ahead. Acquarone was suspended soon afterwards from his work with RCS Sport, as were several other people. The company was investigating the alleged misappropriation of 13 million euro, and he and others were later fired.

The company has not specified if those who lost their roles are suspected of direct involvement, or if they are being faulted for not spotting the misappropriation by others. Acquarone is insistent that he did nothing wrong and is taking a wrongful dismissal suit over the matter. He told VeloNation in recent days that he believes he will win the case.

Before that controversy blew up, though, he said that the possible addition of women’s races was something he intended to work upon.

“What I asked is for my people to please give me projected costs about that. I wanted to know how much it would be to host the women in Milan-Sanremo.

“That meant the prizemoney, all the logistical costs, all the hospitality costs. It was a case of, ‘whatever you do for men, you will do it for women with women’s criteria.’ I asked my staff to find out about that and to present me a project in December.

“Once that was done, the idea was that I could see the increased cost of the ladies’ race. When I know that increase, I could then work out how to cover these costs. Probably I would have to ask more from the sponsors, maybe to find a new sponsor. Or maybe I could ask more from the television [stations]. Maybe I could have asked more from the UCI to develop cycling.

“But I needed to know how much this kind of project would cost. In my mind, I would have liked to have done it in 2015 for the one day races, and then in 2017 to celebrate the 100th edition of the Giro with a combined event. A race for men, and a race for women.

“Okay, the latter would not have been three weeks…maybe just ten days or so. We have to learn a lot from the Giro Donne, from the women’s cycling because of course it is different.

“But I am sure that if you have ladies climbing the Poggio, climbing the Ghisallo, climbing the Stelvio and all the other great climbs, you will have great women’s cycling. Maybe in ten years you will have had perhaps some ladies’ champions as famous as the men, exactly as we have now in tennis with the Williams sisters or Sharapova.”

RCS Sport is facing financial pressures due to the difficult economical situation in Italy and the associated difficulty in securing sponsorship. However, when asked if his hopes to add women’s events to the established male races might have raised concerns within RCS Sport, he plays down such talk. He doesn’t appear to think this drive could have something to do with his dismissal.

“If they were scared [of the financial costs of women’s races], they could just have said no, we cannot afford it. But we don’t even know how much it is – we started thinking about that after the last Giro. They had from June to December, six months, to develop the project. Then when you see how much costs, you will see if and how to cover it.

“Maybe it still happens,” he continues. “I don’t have any relationship with RCS any more, so I don’t know. Perhaps if you ask them, they will give positive feedback to you [about the project]. All I know is I care a lot and I hope they still care.”

Calls for three Grand Tours to be shortened, says it will help sport grow:

Michele AcquaroneAs much as he says that the women’s side of the sport needs to be reformed, Acquarone also feels the same about the men’s. His contention is that the current structure is completely lopsided in favour of one event, the Tour de France, with all other races paling in comparison.

He argues that a complete calendar reform is needed to tackle this, including measures to raise the importance and significance of other events.

“A WorldTour like what is there now is not a true WorldTour,” he said. “If you do not have a really big professional calendar, you have nothing. Now you have just Tour de France and a couple of good races in April. It is not enough.

“Right now, I am sure you cannot have Australia and Argentina like that. There is something wrong, because fans don’t understand a key point. What is more important – the race in Australia [the Santos Tour Down Under – ed.] which is WorldTour, or Argentina [the Tour de San Luis] , which is not? It is probably Australia, because it is WorldTour…yet many big stars are in Argentina. So perhaps I, as a viewer, should follow the Argentina race. But where can I watch it?

“What I want is a WorldTour calendar with all the best riders, a series that I can watch on TV on the same channel every weekend. That is what I want.

“For this reason I say that Mr Cookson should try to give the WorldTour an identity that it doesn’t currently have. I worked for the Giro and I know that we missed it; if all the organisers can work together, they can make a bigger cake for everybody.

“We need to attract fans. Considering the history, the tradition and the beauty of the sport, cycling doesn’t have enough fans. We need millions of them, not just some thousands.”

For Acquarone, a key to gaining more viewers – and thus building cycling’s fans – is to have its stars competing against each other all season. As things stand at present, some big name riders are already in action. Others are yet to begin racing. Even when they are all underway, though, there is no guarantee that they will appear in the same races.

His point is that for the fan, the interest will be ratcheted up if the team GC leaders are firing against each other throughout the season, not just in July.

“The big stars have to ride all the big races in the calendar,” he asserts. “If they don’t do it, we will never have a real drama during the season. Let’s speak about the biggest star in cycling now, Mr Froome. He won the Tour de France last year. Now you are waiting to see him ride where…the Tour de France again. To see if he can still win the Tour de France, or Contador, or Nibali maybe. But it is not enough, that is just July.

“That situation is good for the Tour de France, but it is not good for cycling. Imagine now in Australia we have Contador, Froome and Nibali riding all together, because it is the first race of the season and we want to see who is more in shape.

“Then we go to Argentina and we have Nibali, Contador and Froome riding together. Then we go to Qatar, or Oman, or whatever. Then we will have some Classics. We will see if in Sanremo Contador, Nibali and Froome are together, and then we go to the Giro. Then we go to the Tour de France.

“It is different right now. We have to wait for July. Then maybe you have somebody very good at the Giro, Quintana or Rodriguez. But at the end of the season, if we don’t have Quintana and Froome and Nibali riding together in the Tour de France, who is the best?”

Acquarone points out that Vincenzo Nibali, the rider who finished third in the 2012 Tour de France, opted not to ride the race at all in 2013. Instead, he rode and won the Giro d’Italia, missed July ‘s Grand Tour, then came back to finish second to Chris Horner in the Vuelta a España.

While he was first and second in Grand Tours, he didn’t square up against Froome when both were in their best condition. In fact, they went head to head in just four races; the Tour of Oman in February [where Froome triumphed], Tirreno-Adriatico in March [which Nibali won], Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April [where both were outside the top twenty], and the world road race championships in September. Nibali was fourth there, while Froome withdrew.

As regards the actual Grand Tours, their paths didn’t overlap at all in 2013. It’s something that Acquarone finds ludicrous.

“Who was the best? We don’t know, because they never ride together. It is nonsense, it is anti-sport,” he said. “They need to ride together from the beginning of the season until the end.

“Teams need them to ride because they need points to get fame and money at the end of the season. Now it is just training. It is never-ending training waiting for the Tour de France. I am a cycling fan and with things like that, it is not enough. I don’t like it.”

If he had things his way, the big guns would ride all three Grand Tours. Only one rider did that in 2013, though, namely Lotto-Belisol’s masochistic Australian Adam Hansen. Doing so totals over sixty days of racing, a huge workload, and something which is impossible to do at peak form in each event.

Acquarone’s solution is a simple one. His suggestion is something which will likely not appeal to the purists, to the history buffs, to those who have followed the sport a long time and who see the Grand Tours as a major test of staying power, but he believes the advantages of a new system would outweigh the disadvantages.

“In my opinion, the Grand Tours of three weeks are too long,” he said. “The problem is that if you shorten the Giro and the Vuelta only, then you have just one major race on the calendar, the Tour de France…because everybody will focus on the Tour de France.

“So I suggest to everybody to shorten the Tour de France as well as the other Grand Tours, and then all the riders can ride for three weekends. Even ASO will have a benefit in that. They can’t do it now, of course – they have contracts with sponsors, media rights deals in place. But if they say that from 2022 or from 2024 that they will have different Grand Tours, shorter races, then I am sure that they will get much more money than they do now.

“It would mean that all of the big stars can be present in each of the Grand Tours. Having that and having the same riders competing in the WorldTour races would help make the sport much bigger.

“If you have more fans, you will have more money to share with teams and riders. That’s for sure. Relatively speaking, cycling does not have so many fans now. There is just one race making money, the Tour de France.”

Acquarone argues that the rethink should boost the economics of the sport. He also asserts that dividing up cash funds based on the points total at the end of the season should be considered.

“ASO doesn’t share with anybody, of course…you or I would do the same in their shoes. What I’d say is that in my opinion, we need to raise all the prizemoney for the riders...to put it all together and to give the prizes to the teams at the end of the season.

“The prizemoney of the Giro is 1.3 million [euro]. If you put all the races together, put all the TV rights together, then at the end of the season you can share it with the best teams of the season, with those who made more points along the season. I am sure you can have a lot of money…this is good for teams that want to get more money, and it is good for fans in that they will see the best riders in every single race.”

Also see:

Michele Acquarone interview part I: Overlooking MTN Qhubeka was a major missed opportunity for the Giro d’Italia

Michele Acquarone Interview Part II: “The judge will decide who is right or wrong, but I am sure that I am right”



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