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Jonathan Vaughters commentary: How we ended up in the relegation fight

In Part 1 of a series, Jonathan Vaughters writes about the relegation battle and how the team managed the tightrope.

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*Record scratch*

Yup, it’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up here.

The 2022 season felt like the opening scene of Spiderman, in which Toby Maguire falls off a building and through laundry. I thought we were going to hit the pavement hard. But luckily, we were able to grab onto someone’s drying underwear and swing to survival.

Relegation, the drama surrounding it, and the end of the season nearing … we’ve never experienced a season like this.

I figured now that we’re safe, it’s a relevant moment to reflect on how in the hell my team got so close to relegation to begin with.

The answer isn’t simple. It’s a complex series of debatable decisions and odd events over the last three years that culminated in a scary situation. There were mistakes, unanticipated events, and decisions made in good conscience that cost us a lot of points.

Since it’s a multi-year cycle in the relegation fight, I’ve broken down what happened by season.

2019

A year I remember well. We won Flanders, and plenty of other races, too.

We had a great classics team, great grand tour squads, and a few youngsters that were lighting the world on fire. Our ranking was something I hardly bothered looking at, as we were a team focused on big races and creating value for our sponsors, not chasing around points.

That said, we were comfortably in the top 10, even if no one cared. We were a team building momentum, and quickly. EF Education First wanted to continue building toward the top of the sport and was willing to make it happen financially. In November 2019, I presented a plan to EF of how to construct a team that could slowly build toward winning the Tour de France on an eight-year timeline. The optimism was brighter than the pink.

2020

2020 started well enough, too. One, two, three at Tour of Colombia with a crushing victory in the team time trial, then a podium at Paris-Nice. Things were great. And then … things were not so great.

The pandemic hit teams and sponsors in different ways. For us, the situation wasn’t pretty. EF is a company that brings people together from all around the world. And, for the next few years, people were stuck at home. The cycling team had become a point of pride in EF culture, but sustaining a team in such economic difficulties was understandably questionable.

We paused our dreams of building one of the biggest teams in the world.

That meant budget cuts, losing top riders, shrinking staff and support for riders, and minimizing the race calendar. It also meant onboarding new sponsors to backfill budget gaps. New partners come with new demands and roster changes that aren’t always performance based. We were spread dead thin. We barely made it through 2020.

Hold on a minute! In 2020, we won stages in all three grand tours, we won the Critérium du Dauphiné, and we stood on the podium at the Vuelta. It was a great year! How can you say it was just survival?

Credit to the riders, they also fought for survival and raced hard. We had incredible leftover momentum and a great roster. But we were like an airplane flying high at 35,000 ft in 2019. And in mid-2020, it began running on fumes.

We were losing our best talents to other teams that could pay more. And the riders who had chosen to stay were nervous we wouldn’t make it much longer. Morale was low and that was only the beginning of our growing ranking issue.

2021

Our medical staff and doctors are great. Best out there. But they are very conservative. They, understandably, put health and ethics well before any performance needs. We minimized our exposure to COVID from 2020 on, and we reduced our race calendar to only the World Tour races.

Our medical staff was adamant we needed to eliminate any unneeded exposure from travel, training camps, or extra races. The budget also liked this idea. We reduced travel, race days, and camps. It felt like the right thing to do, both for the team and for society.

But if you aren’t racing as much as the other teams and your roster is a little thin at the bigger races you do attend … the math gets tricky fast.

Our momentum faded away. We were keeping the riders and staff healthy but were not racing much and we weren’t winning when we were.

Recruitment was tough. Pro cycling is a small community, and rumors spread fast. Riders knew we were cutting back financially. Other teams knew. Holding on to our good riders was tough; finding new ones who wanted to take a risk on us was tougher.

In 2019, we had the pick of whatever new talents we wanted; we were the “cool” team. But by the spring of 2021, that wasn’t the case at all.

We made the right decisions regarding our travel and calendar from an ethical, health, and safety standpoint, but our points tally suffered more than we foresaw. And at the time, it didn’t seem the UCI was actually going to use rankings for the World Tour licenses, anyway. The communications they sent said they would revisit the issue. I wasn’t concerned. And that was a huge mistake.

2022

2022 started more optimistically. The world seemed to be opening up. Travel was happening again, and EF’s business was showing signs of normality. While we were a shadow of our 2019 selves, we were looking up rather than staring off an existential cliff.

We won a few races in February and headed in a good direction, though we still remained committed to our minimal racing and training camp shell. We agreed this was for the best.

As we headed into March, our team started getting sick. Very sick. Not just COVID, but flus, colds, stomach viruses. Everything. We were hit exceptionally hard with illness in March and April of 2022.

Why? While I can’t say for certain, the fact we sheltered our riders and staff from extra travel and training camps was now a curse.

The world was open again, and we didn’t have much resistance to the bugs going around. We didn’t do the big pre-season training camps that inevitably expose people to bugs, which meant the team got sick in the spring rather than December. We got hit hard.

We were barely able to send a roster of riders to races, much less compete. We were so absent that we scored zero points in more than two months of racing. We dropped from 11th in the rankings to 18th over eight weeks.

Until this season, UCI points were irrelevant to us

Points. We’ve probably used that word more in the last half a season than the team’s entire history prior.

I’d never done a deep dive on the UCI’s ranking points until this season. For us, points didn’t influence how and where we raced and who we signed.

The UCI rankings compare apples and oranges. Who is the best rider in the world? Some would say the rider who wins the Tour de France. Some say the world champion. But almost no one ever says the UCI No. 1 ranked rider in points.

Until this season, those rankings were irrelevant to us. We recruit for and target big races to maximize commercial and sporting impact. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we don’t, but our eggs have always been in the baskets of bigger events.

Commercial-focused sponsors aren’t too interested in UCI rankings, either.

They focus on Tour de France performance and to a lesser degree some of the monuments and the Giro; for a team like ours, media return on investment at the Tour is more important than points over a season, since it’s how a sponsor measures impact.

Because our sport is sponsorship reliant, publicity matters the most. It might be better if that wasn’t the case, but that would require media rights revenue distribution – something teams have wanted for years but is very far off in a meaningful sense.

To this end, this summer, broadcast data from Nielsen Sports Cycling24 shows we generated a top-five performance among teams at the Tour in terms of media value, thanks to a great first week, the polka dots on Magnus, and a stage win in the mountains.

Job done, right? Well, not if we’d been relegated because we don’t score enough points at smaller races. Sadly, under our current system, we can’t achieve one without the other, and that’s where I made a few mistakes over the past few seasons.

We should have pivoted a few months sooner and raced more, coverage and ROI be damned. You can’t deliver if you don’t exist. I think about this more than ever now. I don’t think that’s great for the sport or for my team, but it’s the game we’re in.

By mid-season, we were staring relegation in the face. And our contracts with our sponsors all said “World Tour Team,” not “UCI Pro Team.” Same with the contracts of the riders, as mandated by the UCI per the AIGCP/CPA joint agreement.

I can’t say for sure how it would have panned out had we been relegated. We have great partners and I like to think we’d have all found a way to move forward in a relegated reality. I didn’t have those conversations because I believed we’d pull through.

Resiliency and the ability to bounce back has always been the strong point of the staff and riders I’ve had the honor of working with these last few years. And the relegation fight proved no exception.

Through the hard work and creative pivoting we did in mid-2022, we were able to get ourselves out of a terrible situation.

A silver lining we found in the relegation fight was how it affected the team internally.

When asked about the impact on the team, I thought Tejay van Garderen said it best: “I think having a common cause has brought the team closer together,” he said to a reporter. The riders and all our staff deserve a hats off for what they have gone through to make this happen.

We all know how close the precipice was — we’ve been staring off the edge of it for months. I’m just lucky I fell into a few clotheslines on the way down.

In Part 2, I’ll give my take on implementing a system that’s fairer to the teams if relegation is something we “must” have in the sport, even though I’m firmly opposed.

Stay tuned.