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Former UCI president questions WorldTour relegation/promotion: ‘Why change if it’s working well?’

Pat McQuaid says relegation risk is rife with pitfalls that could hurt teams and riders and perhaps even backfire in the fight against doping.

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If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.

That’s what former UCI president Pat McQuaid says about new rules being introduced for 2023 to determine how men’s WorldTour team licenses will be awarded.

McQuaid, who ran the international cycling federation for two terms, is questioning the logic behind the implementation of the relegation/promotion system that will dole out the latest rounds of WorldTour licenses.

Going into 2023, the UCI will use points accumulated during the past three seasons to help determine which teams will make it in the elite racing league that guarantees a start place in the Tour de France and other major races.

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Backers of the relegation/promotion system say it injects urgency into racing and rewards success for teams that consistently perform. Under the latest system, the top-ranked across the WorldTour and ProTeam leagues will earn the coveted three-year licenses, expected to be 18 for 2023 to 2025.

The top-ranked teams in the second-tier will move up, and the lower-ranked teams in the WorldTour will drop down.

Detractors, however, say the points system is skewed to favor wealthier teams and punishes teams and riders that might be suffering from illness, crashes, or other bad luck. Some say the relegation system will divide the power of the teams, and favor the influence of race organizers.

The “relegation watch” is generating a lot of buzz, but the threat of losing WorldTour status is putting a half-dozen teams on edge.

VeloNews reached out to McQuaid for his take on the introduction of the sometimes-controversial relegation/promotion system. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VN: Thanks for the call, what is your view of this new system of awarding WorldTour licenses?

Pat McQuaid: I spent my first three years as UCI president in conflict with ASO [owners of the Tour de France]. It was a rough time, and one of the elements that we were fighting against was the promotion/relegation idea. ASO wanted it, but the UCI said no. The ProTour at the time, and later the WorldTour, the rules were clear, and 18 teams were fixed.

Cycling is not football. ASO always talked about the European system, and they compared the idea of 18 fixed teams that it is like U.S. franchise, but that’s wrong. It was created to suit and benefit cycling, and cycling has benefitted because of it.

The thing works well, and has worked well for a good many years, and all you’re doing now is adding on uncertainty. Why?

VN: How do believe that the fixed licenses benefit cycling?

PM: There are whole load of good reasons for that being the case, and the ProTour and what became the WorldTour has served cycling very well. The sport’s grown tremendously because of bigger sponsors and bigger budgets. The teams and riders are benefitting. The system that was set up with four-year licenses with 18 teams. There is a strict system in place which is run by the license commission, with three Swiss judges who do an analysis at each year.

So why change it when it’s working well? Without offering anything better?

It’s not going to improve the sport. What it will do is that sponsors will look at it and say we don’t have any guarantees. Sponsors who have the big money and who want to back cycling, they might leave the sport, because if they start seeing that if a team has a bad year, then we would could lose our position. There’s a danger they won’t back a team. A sponsor wants to be in the first division not the second division.

VN: What do you think the teams or riders should do or could do?

PM: The top teams have nothing to worry about. They’re the big-budget teams and have all the best riders. Even Alpecin-Fenix, they’re racing at the second level, but they’re a WorldTour team in everything but in name. It’s the second line that could go down. There are a lot of teams that are going to be worried in the second half of the season.

I was fighting ASO on behalf of the teams. The AIGCP [team’s group], the Riders Union and CPA, they should have come down together to assure that this didn’t happen. The big budget teams are not concerned about it, and they don’t look out for their fellow teams. The sport is in a very healthy place right now, and this idea could put a lot of teams in danger and scare off sponsors.

Pat McQuaid served two terms as the UCI president. (Photo: Getty Images)

VN: Some teams and riders have criticized the way points are allocated, what’s your view on that?

PM: It’s an unfair system. Some of these training races like in Mallorca or in Belgium, if you win one of these 1.1-ranked races, it’s similar to get a stage at a grand tour. You see teams sending top riders to these smaller races in order to get points instead of sending the best riders to the best races. Riders are being sent all over the place to races no one’s even heard of to race for points. That’s not logical no matter how you look at it.

VN: Others have questioned that this is happening against the backdrop of COVID, and that teams are struggling to bring enough rider to races, let alone compete for points. What’s your view?

PM: This system has been brought in now, and the sport is right in the middle of the world pandemic. We had two years of COVID, with the calendar and athletes affected by it. Their results and points have been affected by the pandemic, and now you’re telling two teams you’re in the second division?

COVID is still out and about, and we’re seeing riders still getting sick and missing races at the last minute or being sent home. The last year and the year before with the calendar being disrupted, now is not the time to do this. I have to say that UCI and teams did an excellent job that cycling continued the past two seasons, and full credit to everyone in the sport. But right now, everybody is in disarray and the riders are struggling to stay healthy, and now there are two teams in danger of being dropped.

VN: What else do you see unfolding with the pressure or stress of relegation?

PM: There is fear of going into a situation that a team is thinking that they might be going down, and the top riders might be under pressure to perform. And that pressure might encourage them to use unfair means to get points. The sport is a good place now, and this system can be seen to be encouraging to pressure them to get results.

The teams are doing a good job to make sure that riders don’t need to go down that route. They give them time off, with rest and training periods, and they’re doing all the right things. If you add this element of uncertainty, who knows what might happen.

Bear in mind, many of these teams have in their contract that if they go down or lose WorldTour status, they have in their contracts they can leave the team. And it’s often the case with riders, too. So if they lose a WorldTour license and two or three of the top riders leave, it’s even harder to come back up again. That’s a lot of unnecessary pressure on a team.

VN: Any final thoughts?

PM: There are more negatives than positives.

The sport is a great place, in terms of the performances and new stars coming up. The teams have more stability and budgets are growing. The Giro is also moving up and getting more prestige. One of the biggest complaints we used to hear from some teams of the ProTour was having to do all the races on the calendar. Some teams never wanted to go to Italy. Now you’re seeing that the Giro is one of their most important races. The Vuelta has moved up and the classics, too.

The current system is working, why change it? Who benefits from these changes? The teams and riders do not.