With all three grand tours in the rearview mirror and only a few meaningful races left, cycling fans could be forgiven for feeling a little late-season fatigue right now. But don’t expect the entire pro peloton to take it easy in the final two WorldTour events of the year.
Thanks to the reforms announced this summer, the last few top-level races of 2016 have taken on a new meaning, one that’s sure to frustrate some fans — and yet, it’s hard to deny that it’s making for a compelling season finale.
With the UCI set to reduce the number of WorldTour teams from 18 to 17 next year, cycling’s top division is one spot short of accommodating all the squads that want in. IAM Cycling and Tinkoff are folding, but Bora – Hansgrohe and the new Bahrain – Merida are bidding for WorldTour status in 2017, and unless the UCI decides to backpedal on the decision to thin out the WorldTour’s ranks, that will leave one team on the outside looking in when all is said and done.
The WorldTour licensing process as written is already confusing, and it’s even more confusing right now in the midst of the reforms. A narrow reading of the current guidelines would suggest the top 16 WorldTour teams that are looking to stay WorldTour for the following year automatically meet the all-important “sporting criterion” for selection. With two of the 18 current teams dropping out, the remaining WorldTour teams would all appear to meet the criterion.
However, there are rumblings that it will only be the top 16 current WorldTour teams period deemed as meeting the criterion, leaving the teams ranked 17th and 18th to square off against the outsiders hoping for a WorldTour bump next year. And even by the first interpretation of the rules, it’s unclear how the decision makers will respond if all 18 teams meet the criterion. The UCI has not yet responded to requests for comment on how it will all play out.
For now, Dimension Data is the clear last-placed squad in the WorldTour rankings. If things stay that way through Il Lombardia, the team’s WorldTour prospects are bleak against the competition. Bora’s new signing Peter Sagan has amassed nearly double the WorldTour points haul of Dimension Data’s top five riders combined, and Bahrain’s marquee star Vincenzo Nibali isn’t that far off of matching Dimension Data’s top five by himself as well.
How could that be? Didn’t Mark Cavendish blow the doors off the sprint stages at the Tour de France?
Meanwhile, Cannondale – Drapac, winless on the WorldTour this year, does not really appear to be in any danger at all. In fact, the team is sitting just above the median in the rankings, in ninth place out of 18. What gives?
Love it or hate it, the motivation for having a WorldTour at all is to create a season-long calendar of marquee events beyond just the Tour de France, and to incentivize attendance at those races with a ranking system. A string of Tour stage victories isn’t enough to secure a position on the calendar; that’s the point. Beyond Dimension Data’s five Tour stage wins this year? Dimension Data’s four other victories at the WorldTour level have also been stage wins in stage races, courtesy of Edvald Boasson Hagen and Steve Cummings.
In fact, the last-placed team has not accrued a podium result in a WorldTour stage race GC or one-day event. Does it mean they’ve had a bad season? Absolutely not. Dimension Data has shown plenty of talent this year, complementing those WT victories with quite an impressive collection of Continental Tour and national championship wins — the Tour of Qatar, the Tour de Langkawi, and recently, the Tour of Britain, all HC-rated stage races, all won by Dimension Data. But therein lies the problem.
As impressive as Cav has been this season, he has only rarely put his speed on display at the highest level beyond the Tour de France. Instead of racing a second grand tour, or Romandie, or the Dauphiné, or the Tour de Suisse, he rode Dubai, Qatar, Croatia, California, Slovenia, and Britain.
And as for Cannondale, the team has made a huge late season push up the rankings, thanks somewhat to Andrew Talansky and Italian GC prospect Davide Formolo, but especially thanks to Alberto Bettiol. I know what you’re thinking: “Who?”
Bettiol, 22, may not be household name, but he’s had a great summer. He finished third overall at the Tour de Pologne in July, nabbed runner-up honors at the Bretagne Classic in August, and finished fourth and seventh, respectively, in the GPs Québec and Montréal. Those performances make him Cannondale’s highest-ranked rider on the WorldTour, well ahead of Cavendish.
That may frustrate old-school fans who have trouble getting excited about racing in Canada or Poland, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone. Bettiol is ranked higher on the WorldTour than Cavendish because he’s put together several great performances in multiple WorldTour events — which makes sense.
— Jonathan Vaughters (@Vaughters) September 11, 2016
Cannondale manager Jonathan Vaughters has a fair point. The opportunities have been there for the taking all season.
If Dimension Data wants to hang on to that WorldTour license, the squad will need to rack up the points at the Eneco Tour, which may be a motivating factor in Cavendish, his top lead out men, and former GC winner Boasson Hagen all making the start. That sounds like a season-long ranking system functioning as planned.
A key note for anyone hoping that Dimension Data can make the jump out of last place over the final two races of the season: At the moment, Giant – Alpecin’s WorldTour spot seems most likely under threat, as the German team currently sits 16th in the rankings. Should Dimension Data claw itself out of the WorldTour basement, Giant, the team that lost its biggest star to a freak car crash in training, might be the one suffering relegation.
It’s hard to imagine a feel-good ending coming out of this, but that’s mostly the result of the race organizers’ push to reduce the total number of WorldTour teams, not the fault of the WorldTour rankings themselves.
The system could probably stand to see some improvements. Given the prestige most riders and fans alike place on stage wins, perhaps they deserve a bit more weight. And certainly, victories of any kind should probably be more heavily weighted than they currently are.
But at their core, the WorldTour rankings seem to be operating as intended: Cycling’s best teams are provided with valuable incentives to deliver consistent results across a yearlong calendar of events that might otherwise be overshadowed by a giant like the Tour de France.
Expect those incentives to inspire some fierce racing over the last few days of the WorldTour season.