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WorldTour: Five men with a shot to win

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) – Cycling puts its best face forward this week as the peloton clips back into gear after a tumultuous offseason and tries to leave the Lance Armstrong scandal in the rearview mirror.

Despite the fog of scandal hanging over the sport, cycling rolls on. The 15th Santos Tour Down Under marks the opening of the 2013 WorldTour calendar.

Some nine months from now, a world No. 1 will be crowned, but will anyone care?

Even without the Armstrong scandal churning negative headlines, the WorldTour rankings have become so diluted and garbled that no one seems to pay attention.

Cycling has never been able to get its head around a season-long series and the latest points system is perhaps its most dysfunctional, at least in terms of measuring quality and quantity throughout cycling’s long racing calendar.

Unlike the Yankees winning the American League pennant or Fernando Alonso claiming the Formula 1 series, a season-long prize just doesn’t fit in cycling.

In a team sport dominated by individual performances, it’s winning Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de France, or the world title that counts.

That hasn’t stopped the UCI from trying. Earlier efforts of combining one-day races, first with the Super Prestige Pernod and then the World Cup, each were replaced just when they appeared to finally be gaining some heft among the peloton.

The UCI ditched the World Cup, which was a collection of the season’s major one-day races, in favor of the ill-fated ProTour in 2005.

After a pitched battle between the UCI and the major race organizers, the ProTour died a quick death in favor of two parallel calendars. That jumbled mess made sense to no one and in 2011, the calendars were merged into today’s WorldTour.

In its latest form, the series is a collection of all the season’s major races, 30 in total, including the classics and other one-day races, the important weeklong races, such as Paris-Nice and the Vuelta al País Vasco, and the three grand tours.

Key to the series is a controversial points system that is the bane of both teams and riders.

Teams need points to assure a place in the WorldTour league while riders need points to assure a contract.

Yet the points system has been heavily criticized by many within the peloton.

Points are weighed toward placings, with the victor gaining the majority of the spoils. Fair enough, but the system is rigged against workers and domestiques who play a huge role in the victory but end up far beyond the range of scoring points.

Unlike the previous rolling points system, which went much deeper in the result sheet and was measured against all UCI-sanctioned races, the latest algebra only tallies points from the leading finishers from ProTeam squads racing in WorldTour events.

For example, the Tour de France winner gains 200 points for racing three weeks, while the winner of a monument earns 100 points for six hours of racing. A Tour stage is worth 20 points while the winner of the Tour Down Under receives 100 points.

Winners take all, meaning that individual riders get the ever-important points while their respective teammates, who helped make that victory possible, are left out in the cold. Now, only riders punching into the top 20 at the Tour gain any points. Everyone else gets zilch.

Under the former UCI ranking system, points were much deeper and riders collected points in every sanctioned race they started if they finished reasonably well, regardless if it was in America, Asia or Europe. So if a rider took pulls for three weeks in the Tour yet notched some podiums in the some minor one-day races, they would still gain at least some points.

No so in today’s system. Because teams are in a desperate chase for points, some riders lost jobs afte 2012 for being unable to bring points to the table.

One example is Joost Posthuma, a hard-working domestique who lost his ride with RadioShack-Leopard after an injury-plagued 2012 left him without points. Amets Txurruka, a popular Basque attacker, was dropped by points-hungry Euskaltel-Euskadi in favor of obscure riders packing points. Posthuma retired and Txurruka got a lifeline from Caja Rural, a Pro Continental team.

Now entering its third season of its latest incarnation, the WorldTour title is important to teams (see Katusha’s argument in its ongoing license battle), but much less so to individual riders.

Teams want points to secure a racing license. Riders want to win races. It’s as simple as that.

The series favors all-rounders over specialists. Classics riders and grand tour captains stay focused on their specific goals, meaning they rarely race an entire season at full gas.

In fact, few riders in the modern peloton can perform at a high level, across varied disciplines, from January to October, so much so that the hunt for the WorldTour title is all but reduced to about a dozen riders.

The points come with the wins, so a rider on a hot streak will sometimes bubble to the top only to fade later. Last year saw a few examples of this.

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) started 2012 hot, winning the Tour Down Under and Milan-San Remo, only to finish sixth in the end-of-year standings.

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) started off like gangbusters as well, taking over from Gerrans and holding the lead after his brilliant spring, only to finish third — nearly 300 points behind eventual winner Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha). Boonen clearly stated the WorldTour title was never a goal.

Later, Bradley Wiggins (Sky) held a commanding lead following his dominance in the spring stage races, capped by winning the Tour, but he pulled the plug on his season in early August after striking gold in the Olympics.

The allure of possibly winning the WorldTour title couldn’t temp Wiggins back on the bike after his major objectives were won.

Rodríguez, second in the Giro d’Italia and third in the Vuelta a España, secured the title with victory at the Giro di Lombardia, but didn’t bother competing in the season finale at the Tour of Beijing in October.

For the most part, no one starts the Tour Down Under this week thinking about winning the WorldTour title. There’s no special jersey that comes with the series nor is there dedicated prize money.

And the latter is the one thing that triggers the competitive juices of everyone in the peloton: money.

In 2011, Philippe Gilbert raced like a maniac to win the title due to a reported $650,000 contract bonus paid by Omega Pharma-Lotto team sponsors for winning the WorldTour title.

That, more than anything, will keep riders chasing the points.

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