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Analysis: Sohrabi, Txurruka highlight UCI points system’s unintended consequences

The stories of riders like Mehdi Sohrabi, Amets Txurruka and Steve Houanard highlight the unintended consequences of the UCI's points system

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Hungry to maintain their qualifications for pro cycling’s highest level of racing, the WorldTour, some teams have turned to hiring riders for their cache of UCI points as much as for their cycling talent. For riders from non-cycling strongholds outside Europe, this is a new path to the highest level of the sport. Yet the phenomenon can also be seen as an exploitative consequence of the murky WorldTour qualifying process, a shadowy ordeal that also leaves cycling’s bedrock players, domestiques, in an untenable position: the more effectively they do their work, the less likely they are to stay employed.

The UCI breaks pro racing into three levels of competition, each with its own schedule of events: a UCI WorldTour calendar, a continental calendar, and a national calendar. As the name suggests, the continental calendar amasses points from races that take place within five separate continental regions: Asia, Americas, Europe, Africa, and Oceana.

Iranian rider Mehdi Sohrabi won the Asia Tour in 2010 and 2011. In October 2011, he signed for Lotto-Belisol, which had seen the strength of its 2012 WorldTour license application deflate with the loss of Philippe Gilbert’s 718 points to BMC Racing.

Courting points

At the time, Lotto was candid about the fact that Sohrabi’s 329 Asia Tour points were a significant attraction. (When a rider switches teams, his points from the previous two years go with him to his new team.) Lotto was not alone. Two other points hungry teams — Ag2r La Mondiale and Geox — courted Sohrabi.

While there is not a one-to-one correlation between the points a team has amassed at the end of the season and its sporting value, total team points are a heavy factor in a calculus that also factors ethical, financial, and administrative criteria. Each year, the UCI grants the top 15 teams in terms of sporting value automatic WorldTour licenses. The other three licenses are granted at the UCI’s discretion. Thanks in part to Sohrabi’s points infusion, Lotto kept its standing in the top division.

However, the 2011 races where Sohrabi piled up his points did not feature the level of competition found in Europe. In 2011, he won three stage races: the International Azerbijan Tour, Jelahah Malaysia, the Kerman Tour (40 points each), plus the Iranian national championship and stage 7 of China’s Tour of Qinghai Lake (20 points each).

Lacking European experience, Sohrabi delivered neither points nor results this year and will leave the team at the close of the season. Lotto manager Marc Sergeant admitted that the jump to the WorldTour was “too ambitious” for the Iranian.

Fuzzy math

BMC Racing president Jim Ochowicz says padding his team’s sporting value application is not a factor when BMC scouts for talent. “We don’t hire riders because of their points,” he told VeloNews.

While Ochowicz maintains that the American squad looks only at rider performance and racing history when deciding who to hire, his team enjoys a budget that allows it to recruit some of the sport’s top players — riders whose talent keeps them loaded with points. Lotto’s 718-point loss in Gilbert was BMC’s gain in 2012. And even in a year when BMC heavy-hitters like Thor Hushovd and Cadel Evans did not deliver the sort of results they have in previous seasons, the team still finished the season comfortably in seventh position in the WorldTour team rankings, with 917 points.

Toward the bottom of the UCI team rankings things are more desperate. At season’s end, Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, Vacansoleil-DCM, Ag2r La Mondiale and FDJ-Big Mat sat 15th to 18th.

This division of wealthy and non-so wealthy squads points to another unintended consequence of the UCI points system. Should it have the financial capacity, a team could buy its way into the WorldTour simply by hiring riders loaded with points. Meanwhile, teams with a smaller budgets but more nurturing farm systems could watch their most talented, points-rich riders hired away every year, which in turn makes it difficult to attract sponsors to keep their projects going.  This quirk of the points system would seem to defeat the UCI’s other stated objective of encouraging WorldTour teams to nurture up-and-coming talent.

Last month, Saxo Bank announced that it had hired this year’s USA Pro Challenge stage 6 winner Rory Sutherland for 2013. Sutherland also won the SRAM Tour of the Gila and Tour de Beuce stage races in 2012, and in 2011 he was seventh GC at the Amgen Tour of California and 10 overall in Colorado.

While the UnitedHealthcare rider’s win atop Flagstaff Mountain in Colorado showed he could deliver a thrashing to some of the best WorldTour riders, racing chops are not all he brings to Saxo Bank. As winner of the America Tour, he contributes 184.8 continental tour points to the dossier the UCI takes into consideration when assigning the team a final sporting value.

When asked if his America Tour points explicitly helped him land a ride back in Europe, Sutherland said “it all does come up in negotiations.”

However, he added, the main sticking point in talking with WorldTour teams was whether his domestic fitness would stand up to the rigors of European racing. “It’s a very difficult jump from the U.S. domestic scene or the Pro Continental scene to the WorldTour, because you are not kind of established in that department,” he said. Sutherland spoke to a number of WorldTour teams, “and they were like, ‘Yeah, we know he’s a good rider, but can he handle Europe? How’s he going to go over here? All his results are in the United States.’”

Sutherland adds that he was not paying particular attention to the America Tour rankings for the bulk of 2012. “It was like a bonus in the end,” he said. “Honestly, the America Tour, we never tried to win it. We just raced our bikes. We didn’t go to specific races just to get points. Until we got to the last event of the year, which was [the Thompson Bucks County Classic], and by that time we already had enough points from Utah and Colorado.”

The fact that there is a foggy correlation between a team’s WorldTour points rank and its qualification for a WorldTour license can add to a team’s anxiety. Asked how continental tour rider points are applied to a team’s sporting value, Ochowicz confessed that he did not understand the calculation, saying “I wish it were clearer.”

“I get that they want to have some system that includes values in the teams that are away from just results,” he noted of the UCI’s methodology. “But when you do that it’s difficult to measure and you are using opinions rather than facts.”

When assessing a team’s WorldTour license application, the UCI looks at ethical, financial, administrative, and sporting variables. The sporting part of the equation combines rider points from the previous two years with the team accomplishments such as team classification placings at stage races. It is not clear how points from the Continental Tour riders are weighted, if at all, when applying them to the WorldTour qualifying formula. The rules are not published publicly, and the UCI did not respond to requests by VeloNews for an explanation of the system.

Like Ochowicz, Sutherland is at a loss to explain how his America Tour points translate into World Tour sporting value. “I have no idea,” he said. “I know that you get a rider value or something. Am I fan of it? No, because I think if you are a proven rider, then you get a job based on that. And now it seems like a lot of teams kind of have to calculate who to bring on and that maybe cuts out a lot of the younger riders and the really good domestiques.”

Death of the domestique

The focus on points can also undermine cycling’s team structure. Sutherland points out that no matter how talented a rider is, as a domestique, his job is “to work for other guys.”

While a powerful domestique might add priceless racing value to a team, due to the sacrificial nature of his job description, that rider does not cross the line in the top 10 or 20 riders, where the points lie. Thus, by doing his job to support the team’s stars, he also subverts his ability to accumulate points that both increase the team’s sporting value and help that rider secure a future contract. This puts a domestique who approaches the end of the season without UCI points in the unenviable and perverse position of choosing whether to ride for his team and lose his job or ride for himself and secure his career.

“I think the teams have been forced into this position,” said Sutherland. “They don’t have a choice.”

That said, Sutherland thinks having the different continental tour rankings is a good UCI invention. “It’s something to strive for, kind of like the [National Racing Calendar] in the U.S. If somebody can win that overall, it just shows the consistency of the season they’ve had.”

The points system has forced the Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi team to break with its founding charter to hire only riders born in or spending their development years in the Spain’s Basque Country.

In September, team manager Igor González de Galdeano let domestique Amets Txurruka go because he earned no UCI points in 2012. Txurruka is an experienced domestique that had spent six years with Euskaltel and brought the team its first-ever Tour de France podium appearance when he won the most aggressive jersey in 2007. Yet, as Basque newspaper Deia scathingly put it, while Txurruka rode all three grand tours as a gregario this year, because Euskaltel was so hungry for points needed to stay in the WorldTour — “the treasure of numeric cycling that fits in an Excel worksheet” — the team had to let him go.

Meanwhile, earlier in the summer Euskaltel had discussions with now-retired Oscar Friere to sign with the team in 2013. The team reportedly offered him a deal under which he would only have to ride part of the season, or not at all should he choose. While the team later denied making Friere an offer to sign without racing, the connection between releasing one rider without points in favor of a part-time, points-rich veteran is clear under the current system.

Pressure to perform

On a more sinister note, after being told at September’s Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal and Québec races that his contract would not be extended in 2012, 26-year old Ag2r La Mondiale rider Steve Houanard reportedly took EPO before the Tour of Beijing as a last-ditch effort to net career-saving UCI points. After Hounard tested positive in China, team manager Vincent Lavenu told L’Equipe that “the situation triggered a reaction that could not be more stupid.”

On the bright side is the fact that the UCI points system does give riders with points more leverage when negotiating contracts. Since points have become a pro team’s greatest treasure, the system gives a team more incentive to treat its riders well if it wants them and their points to hang around. Especially in a pro cycling world in which riders have no union to represent their interests, the points system may give athletes sway they did not possess before.

Also, while Lotto hired a rider like Sohrabi for points first and talent second (if at all), the current system does open a pipeline for riders from non-cycling strongholds to beat a path to the big leagues. Ochowicz sees this as a positive, noting that “it’s great to give riders from some of those other nations a chance.”

Michael Barry recently argued in The New York Times that, lacking the stabilizing ballast of a league and television revenue sharing, teams and riders are even more desperate for the points they need to stay at the WorldTour level. Fall out of the WorldTour and a team can no longer promise its sponsors automatic exposure at the Tour de France. And when multinational sponsors lose their advertising platform, they pull their dollars and look for another sport to buy into. This, in Barry’s opinion, puts both teams and riders “in constant survival mode” and leads to ethical compromises.

So while on one hand the current points system gives greater incentive for WorldTour-targeting teams to pull up qualified riders like Sutherland, it also can throw unprepared riders like Sohrabi into a position where they are clearly in the wrong place. This is not only potentially damaging to the athlete, but is also a disservice to fans who expect only A-grade riders in the WorldTour. Perhaps most unsettling, the points system can undermine the teamwork ethic that makes cycling so compelling. In the past, the domestique won by turning himself inside out for his team. His ability to leave himself on the road was job security. Today, the points system seems to conspire against the solid workers; what once made riders like Txurruka integral to their teams can now make them expendable.