Racing for WorldTour points creates chaos where there should be order

WorldTour points may help the UCI crown a champion at the end of the season, but they can result in conflicts of interest in the peloton

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — It was hours after stage 4 of the Santos Tour Down Under, and most riders had finished dinner and gone to bed to rest up for the following day’s battle. Outside the media pressroom, two Katusha riders were poaching the wifi signal and intensely studying the website ProCyclingStats. They were scouring deep into the day’s results, to see how many, if any, UCI points they had earned.

In professional cycling, the devil is in the details. In what is one of the sport’s grayest of gray areas, every race is a battle on two dimensions: The first race is for the victory, and the second, for UCI points. It’s a contradiction that shapes everything that happens inside the broiling, stampeding herd that is the professional peloton.

Cycling is one of the oddest of sports in that it’s a team sport where only an individual wins. In order to win, the team captain needs an entire squad to bury themselves, and sacrifice their chances, in order to bring their leader to victory. But that is the paradox. Riders still need results, and if they don’t keep one eye on their own interests, they might come up short in cycling’s game of musical chairs.

“No system is perfect, and we just have to deal with what the UCI comes up with,” said BMC Racing general manager Jim Ochowicz. “If we’re racing well as a team, we’ll get the points. Personally, I think the points should stay with the rider. That’s fair. It’s up to the teams to find the right riders to meet its goals.”

Therein lies the rub. With his stage victory and overall title, Tour Down Under winner Rohan Dennis earned 110 WorldTour points, the bread and butter of the peloton’s current ranking system. BMC’s Peter Stetina and Michael Schär, two riders who sacrificed themselves to help Dennis earn his breakout victory, didn’t earn a single point between them.

“My team protected me, kept me out of trouble,” gushed Dennis. “Without them, I couldn’t have won.”

The UCI ranking system is the underpinning of the entire peloton hierarchy, and it’s one of the most contradictory and misunderstood elements of the sport. The chase for the points is counterproductive, at many levels.

“Building a team is like a jigsaw puzzle. When we sign riders, we don’t look at their points, we look at their ability, how they will fit in, where we can use them as part of the overall needs of the team,” Ochowicz said. “Points are important, but not the deciding factor.”

But how those points come to the fore in the hunt for contracts, and subsequently the way in which teams race, plays out in interesting ways.

The points race — not the track version, but the quest for good results in road races — dates back deep into the history of cycling.

Points aren’t worth what they used to be

A points system was introduced decades ago as a measuring stick for performance, as well as to provide a carrot to keep a racer’s motivation high. If the peloton rolls in together, on time they stand equal, but if there are points at the line, even for the top 20, everyone is going to be charging for the line. Like primes, points are designed to keep things interesting.

Under a system that was developed in the 1980s and evolved well into the 1990s, points were weighted based on the importance of the race, with the victory of a grand tour netting many more points than a smaller, five-day stage race in Spain. All the points were aggregated into the same ranking. As the sport evolved, points also became an efficient and easy way to measure a riders’ quality. A rolling, year-to-date points system and a season-long ranking helped put a figure to a rider’s depth. Being No. 1 had its merits, but punching into the top 30 had its value. Well into the 2000s, points were a critical element in fixing a salary, with the rough equation of one point equaling $1,000 per year in salary. That was a carrot that every rider could clearly understand.

All that changed in 2005 with the introduction of the controversial ProTour under former UCI president Hein Verbruggen. The ProTour was a power play on many levels; the old points system was ditched, and a new ranking was introduced that divided the racing calendar across separate, newly created divisions. A rider taking points in a ProTour race couldn’t earn points in a non-ProTour event, and vice-versa.

When the ProTour morphed into the current WorldTour, the division of points continued. In fact, that’s why many riders and teams look to such sites as ProCyclingStats and CyclingQuotient, which calibrate points based on the current ranking system, and also calculate a ranking based on the older, universal points tally that is so useful and more accurate in measuring a rider’s true consistency and worth across races of all divisions.

To make things even murkier, points are also critical in calculating team rankings, a major factor in who gets into the WorldTour and who doesn’t. Yet, when a rider earns points, they stay with the rider; when a rider changes teams, the points go to the new employer. That dynamic has created interesting wrinkles over the past few seasons, with riders seemingly working for the wrong team.

“Today, a rider is valued differently than during my era,” said ex-pro and current rider agent Giovanni Lombardi, who represents riders like Peter Sagan and Ivan Basso. “It’s unfortunate that the current ranking system doesn’t reflect the work of the ‘gregario.’ It’s up to the teams to put a value on that. Many teams would rather sign a rider who can win a few races a year, and do nothing else to contribute, than to sign a rider who dedicates himself solely to one captain. They are wrong in that regard.”

A valuable commodity

In 2015, only 17 teams were vying for 18 WorldTour licenses, so securing a spot in the top league wasn’t an issue. But just a few years ago, before the departure of teams such as Euskaltel-Euskadi, Vacansoleil, and Liquigas, there was a real scramble for teams to sign riders carrying high point tallies.

This is how cycling’s game of musical chairs sometimes spun in maddening directions.

Subpar riders with questionable ability were getting picked up by WorldTour teams, such as Iranian rider and former Asia Tour winner Mehdi Sohradi, who joined Lotto in 2012, simply because he brought many points with him. Other experienced domestiques, such as former Dutch pro Joost Posthuma, were dropped because they were not carrying any points at all. Euskaltel, which was founded on signing only Basque riders, broke its long tradition in 2012, signed foreign riders for the 2013 season, and promptly collapsed.

But it isn’t just support riders that have been hampered by this system. Chris Horner was caught in an unfortunate case of bad timing when, despite winning the 2013 Vuelta a España, and becoming the oldest winner of a grand tour, Horner could barely find a contract. Why? Few teams wanted to risk paying big bucks for an aging rider, but more importantly, there was no race between teams to secure a spot in the WorldTour due to a lack of teams vying to assure their place in the elite league.

“Had I won the Vuelta a year before, I would have had a half-dozen teams trying to sign me,” Horner lamented. Those consequences played out even worse for Horner after an injury-plagued 2014. With almost no points at all, many of the elite teams saw him as damaged goods, and he had to settle for signing with a U.S. domestic team.

Teams also consider points when formulating team strategy and goals. Movistar, long one of the sport’s standard-bearers of stage racing, is bolstering its sprint program with Juanjo Lobato, Spain’s most promising sprinter since Óscar Freire. Movistar has won back-to-back WorldTour team titles, and wants to make sure they’re in the running again in 2015.

“We wanted to add a sprinting element to our team. Not only because Lobato is good, but sprinting is an easy way to earn points,” Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta said. “That’s why more teams are trying to win sprints these days. It’s great if you can win a stage, but even if you’re in the top five, you can pick up quite a few points.”

Another wrinkle enters the fray when riders, who are confirmed to be leaving their respective squads, get benched late in the season. Few teams will publicly acknowledge they do this, but it’s not uncommon. Why send a rider, who can earn points, to the Vuelta a España if that rider is going to take those points to a rival team at season’s end?

One famous case involved Jakob Fuglsang, who publicly criticized his RadioShack boss Johan Bruyneel after he was left off the squad’s 2012 Tour de France team. Bruyneel wasn’t accustomed to riders criticizing him in public; Fuglsang was told he wouldn’t be welcomed back the next season, and wouldn’t be racing any more WorldTour events.

“In retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t so smart to have commented on my situation,” Fuglsang told a Danish newspaper. “But where are we then? One should be allowed to speak his mind without having sporting consequences.”

Cannondale-Garmin CEO Jonathan Vaughters openly admits he’s kept riders from racing when he knew they are headed to other teams the following season.

That sentiment prompted Vaughters and BMC to engineer a rare, mid-season transfer last August for 24-year-old Rohan Dennis. Rules stipulate the official trading season doesn’t begin until September 1 (though it’s no hidden secret that most deals are hammered out months before that), but it was obvious BMC was making a big push for the promising Australian. Rather than find himself in a quandary of whether or not to bench Dennis, Vaughters agreed to the unprecedented deal.

Other teams insist it would be rare for a rider to be left off a roster simply because everyone knew they were leaving the team. In 2014, Cannondale raced a full 2014 schedule with Peter Sagan despite the open secret he was heading to Tinkoff-Saxo for 2015.

“The most important thing about selecting a roster is the condition of the rider, and if they’re capable of contributing. Next year doesn’t matter,” said Tinkoff sport director Lars Michaelsen. “We pay riders for 12 months, so it wouldn’t make sense to keep them out of races because of points. Of course, everyone has to work together. If someone is a real asshole, then that might happen.”

A wrinkle in timing

The debate over the points system took an unexpected turn in January. The UCI introduced a new points system that was supposed to see a return to something similar to the former ranking system, but in late January, after some negative feedback from teams, the UCI abruptly did a U-turn, and re-imposed the 2014 rules for this season.

There were more than a few riders grumbling about that reversal, especially since it came right in the middle of the WorldTour opener at the Tour Down Under, saying they were working hard to race for points they thought they would be earning. The UCI insists new points rules will be in place by 2016, allowing teams to get a head-start on recalibrating their rosters based on the new structure.

“The UCI has taken note of some concerns expressed recently on the subject of new rankings,” UCI president Brian Cookson wrote in a letter to a team. “It has, indeed, become clear that the new ranking system was presenting teams and riders with considerable problems given that they had assumed that they would be working in 2015 with the 2014 system and had built their structures and planned their seasons accordingly.”

In any form, cycling’s points system remains one of the peloton’s inconsistencies. It’s a sport built on teamwork and sacrifice, but only one comes up a winner. Unlike other sports, such as baseball or football, where balls and strikes, and passing and rushing yardage can be precisely catalogued, it’s only the finish line that counts in cycling. There’s no way to calibrate how long a rider pulled at the front to set up the sprint, or how deep a teammate went to chase down an attack in the mountains.

There’s no black-and-white answer, and riders sometimes get caught in a murky gray zone of conflicting and contradictory interests; the points on offer almost seem to make it worse.

It’s ironic that a points structure and ranking system, which in theory should provide order to chaos, only creates more ambiguity and uncertainty. There’s nothing black or white about that.