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The men’s WorldTour: Why it means nothing and everything in cycling

The men's WorldTour calendar ended with a sputter this weekend, but it's during the backroom deals where the real race is on.

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In case you didn’t notice, the men’s WorldTour calendar ended Saturday with Il Lombardia — an exciting race that deserves a better curtain call.

Funny thing, except for a few teams and individual riders, almost no one noticed that the 2021 WorldTour concluded this weekend.

Since its inception in 2009, the UCI’s reorganization of the elite men’s international calendar of what had been the ProTour creates about as much buzz as watching mud turn to dirt.

In short, it means almost nothing in a sporting sense.

While other top sports see their season-long series end in drama-oozing tournaments and playoffs, cycling’s equivalent ends so anti-climatically that no one even notices it’s there.

What the WorldTour really is

UAE Emirates is building a long term plan around Pogačar
The Tour de France remains the center of the men’s WorldTour calendar. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Of course, there are two versions of the men’s WorldTour — the first is the rather arbitrary sporting designation that draws the boundary on the calendar around a cobbled-together mesh of one-day classics, one-week stage races, and the grand tours.

The other WorldTour — administrative version — is the one that counts.

It’s the one thing that the UCI controls that all the teams — and by extension, the riders — want: WorldTour team status.

WorldTour teams, of course, receive entries into all the WorldTour calendar races via the treasured WorldTour license. Under some tweaks to the rules, they don’t have to race all of the WorldTour races, but they can if they want to.

And the real linchpin to the entire calendar is the Tour de France.

That’s what really truly matters to every team in the elite men’s peloton — a guarantee of a starting place at the Tour de France every summer.

Without it, teams that are already having a hard time stitching together a working budget to cover the $15 million to $25 million annual cost (and climbing) just to be at a competitive level, have little chance at all.

Since its inception of the ProTour and its latest incarnation at the WorldTour, there is an ever-growing gap between the WorldTour teams and the second-tier squads. It’s the Tour access with the WorldTour license that’s the wedge.

And it’s this fight for permanency in the WorldTour that’s at the root of all the behind-the-scenes tension and turmoil that sometimes bubbles over into headlines every few years.

Teams have been, are, and always will be clamoring for assurances that their presence in the Tour de France is a guarantee. Some would like to see it as a permanent guarantee — much like a NFL-style franchise — so that every year the teams will race the Tour and there’s no mystery about it.

Holding a valid WorldTour license, even if it’s only for two to four years, has real value today. Any team owner with a valid license can parlay that Tour access into sponsorship deals than can save a team, or, if a project finally dies on the vine, sell off the license to the highest bidder.

The Tour owners, however, want to see a fluid system where new teams and popular underdog stories can rise up to capture the imagination of fans and media (as well as create new markets for ASO).

ASO would like to see a relegation and promotion system based on end-of-season rankings, similar to how the top European soccer leagues work, a concept that teams are stridently opposed to.

It’s the eternal three-way tug-of-war between race organizers, the UCI, and the teams that creates so much behind-the-scenes tension within cycling.

Some say that inherent conflict is holding back the sport and preventing it from becoming a global player. Others argue the current multi-tiered system allows room for the sport to grow into new markets as well as defend long-running races and teams in cycling’s traditional heartlands.

As it stands today, there are two versions of the WorldTour: one out on the road and another that’s played out in the backrooms in Paris, Aigle, and beyond.

Time for an update?

LIBOURNE, FRANCE - JULY 16: Tadej Pogačar of Slovenia and UAE-Team Emirates yellow leader jersey & The peloton at arrival during the 108th Tour de France 2021, Stage 19 a 207km stage from Mourenx to Libourne / @LeTour / #TDF2021 / on July 16, 2021 in Libourne, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Some want to see updates to the WorldTour calendar to give it more meaning. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Is it time to update the WorldTour calendar and the underlying structure of elite men’s cycling?

The WorldTour calendar is still getting battered by the coronavirus. Races in China that would have closed out 2021 were canceled due to COVID-19, and the 2022 WorldTour will kick off in March after COVID already took out races in Australia.

Cycling endured the worse of the coronavirus pandemic, and most of the calendar is expected to unfold with more or less normality next year, so what can and should the sport do?

Some argue that the time is right to reshape its calendar, and create some sort of season-long “narrative” that will keep people hooked from January to October.

Others would like to see a WorldTour winner have some real meaning, and thus give added heft to the late-season races and create some sort of end-of-season series winner to ward off “racing fatigue” among fans.

That might work great if every racer were a specialist of the same ilk, and every race the same. Unlike football, which has the same amount of players on a field that is of the same dimension week in and week out (except the weather if there’s no dome), each and every cycling race is uniquely different, be it in topography, distance and number of days.

Sprinters win Milano-Sanremo and grand tour specialists win the Tour de France — it’s been that way for more than 100 years. No matter what the window dressing, that isn’t going to change that.

That’s not to say that cycling couldn’t stand for a little update.

Though it’s far from a perfect system, teams like the current WorldTour calendar and structure in that it gives them at least some runway into the future through the Tour guarantee that comes with a WorldTour team license. Organizers also like today’s status-quo because their races are protected. The UCI likes it because it remains the sport’s arbiter and receives healthy fees from races and teams alike.

The current system, far from perfect, at least works to a degree.

It’s the on-the-road calendar that some say needs some tweaking.

Race organizers have already been on the cutting edge of route innovation, be it “impossible” climbs like the Angliru, or bringing back gravel onto the road racing menu.

Organizers like Flanders Classics, RCS Sport and ASO have done great work sprucing up their brands over the past decade or so.

Illustration picture shows Leuven's city hall during the elite men road race of the UCI World Championships Road Cycling Flanders 2021, 268,3km from Antwerp to Leuven on Sunday 26 September 2021. The Worlds take place from 19 to 26 September 2021, in several cities in Flanders, Belgium. BELGA PHOTO POOL KRISTOF RAMON (Photo by POOL KRISTOF RAMON/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)
Could an end-of-season prize ever be bigger than the rainbow jersey? (Photo: KRISTOF RAMON/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

Will the WorldTour calendar ever mean anything?

What still seems to be missing is a thread to stitch the calendar together.

That’s where some believe the WorldTour calendar could have some real meaning on the road.

Races as inherently diverse as a three-week grand tour in summer might never have that much in common with spring classics or a stage race in some far-flung exotic local as to create a linear straight line from January to October, but there is room for some tweaking.

The ideal, of course, would be for the UCI to find some free-spending sponsor to pony up some significant prize money for both men’s and women’s winners of a series or a season-long points competition.

Hello, RedBull?

Prize money gets everyone’s attention, from the racers to the team managers to the bus drivers and soigneurs and mechanics (who still see their share of a payout) to fans and media, and would up the ante across the sport.

Think big — $1 million for the winners — and all the stars would be lining up.

Better still, revive the former WorldCup (before that the Super Prestige Pernod series), and create a series of one-day races that actually matters.

Or, as ASO proposes, have a soccer-style relegation/promotion model where every race and every point would count.

Of course, there is a risk of messing too much with cycling’s hodge-podge collection of races. Though imperfect, there is a sort of rhyme and reason to the elite men’s racing calendar as it stands today. Reducing race days of grand tours, or rescheduling too many of cycling’s traditional races might do more harm than good.

The only way some sort of arbitrarily imposed prize or title will matter to anyone is if there’s a lot of money in play.

What really matters is winning Paris-Roubaix, the world title, or the Tour de France.

Without a financial incentive of a whopping-big prize money pot or some sort of real consequence, like possible delegation or promotion, the WorldTour as a “season”in elite men’s cycling will remain largely what it is today — little more than lines around a calendar on a piece of paper.