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The surprise winners and sort-of losers in the UCI’s year-end rankings

Pogačar and van Vleuten came out top, but who won and lost lower down the ranking? From Cavendish and Carapaz to Vollering and Vos, these are the takeaways.

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Tadej Pogačar and Annemiek van Vleuten are top of the world in 2021 – at least, that’s according to the UCI’s final points rankings.

Surprised? Maybe not. The veteran Dutchwoman and babyfaced Slovenian would be top of many people’s lists when rating the most successful riders of the year.

But what else can the UCI’s final world rankings, which were finalized last week, tell us?

From the classics chasm and the overlooked sprinters in the men’s peloton to the one-rider race in the women’s fields, there’s plenty of juicy nuggets to pick at.

Let’s dive in – but first, let’s set the scene:

Women’s top-three world rankings, 2021

1. Annemiek van Vleuten: 5053 points
2. Elisa Longo Borghini: 3485 points
3. Marianne Vos: 3378 points

Men’s top-three world rankings, 2021

1. Tadej Pogačar: 5363 points
2. Wout van Aert: 4382 points
3. Primož Roglic: 3924 points

Neilson Powless came out by far the highest-ranked U.S. rider, 52nd overall (986 points). Kristen Faulkner led home the American women at 24th overall (987 points).

You can check out the full top-20s below.

How does it work?

Pogačar will skip the Vuelta to focus on the fall classics
Winning the Tour de France wins a stack of UCI points – and cuddly lions. (: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Here’s a quick feel for how the points system works.

The UCI has allocated points and ranked riders in various complicated ways since 2009. Since then, riders like Marianne Vos, Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, Peter Sagan, and Anna van der Breggen have topped the year-end lists.

Points are rewarded based on a convoluted tiered system based on riders’ results for the past 12 months.

As some examples of how the UCI carves things up:

For the men, the final yellow jersey at the Tour de France carries more weight than the GC of the Vuelta a España or Giro d’Italia. WorldTour-ranked one-day wins are given equal weight as overall victory at weeklong races.

Meanwhile, the absence – until the incoming Tour de France Femmes – of one clear must-win stage race for women means Olympic or world championships victories earn the most points. Victories in a WorldTour one-dayer or GC at a leading stage race come next.

Long story short, it’s complicated.

What does it tell us?

Annemiek van Vleuten at the Challenge by La Vuelta
Annemiek van Vleuten wore the WorldTour-leader’s jersey uninterruptedly from July onward. (Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

So what do the final results actually mean, and should we care?

Well, the world ranking doesn’t really mean a whole lot to individuals in the men’s peloton other than the bragging rights.

A weird wrinkle in the women’s system means there’s both a world ranking (for all races) and WorldTour ranking (for the top-tier events). This year, van Vleuten crushed both classifications and spent several months wearing the magenta WorldTour leader’s jersey.

Having an identifiable leader on the road gives the women’s WorldTour classification kudos and many racers show stoke when they wear it.

For teams, the stakes are a lot higher. The top-ranked men’s pro team – Alpecin-Fenix again this year – is guaranteed a spot in all UCI WorldTour events including the three grand tours the following year, and with that, a huge haul of revenue and negotiating power.

For the teams already in WorldTour, it’s just something to shout about.

“It has been an exceptional year, with not only the number of victories but also the quality standing out,” Patrick Lefevere said after Deceuninck-Quick-Step topped the boards in 2021.

“There are so many great memories that it is hard to choose a highlight, and as much as anything let’s remember the riders and staff in the organization that didn’t take victories themselves but worked very hard to make it possible for us to become the best team in the world for 2021.”

Consistency is key: A deep dive into the results

It is worth a look at the numbers though.

The rankings system, which puts a premium on consistency, is an interesting way of assessing a season and picking riders out from behind the shade of riders like Pogačar, van Vleuten, Wout van Aert and the rest.

Women’s final world rankings, 2021:

Men’s final world rankings, 2021:

João Almeida and Adam Yates and may not be headline-grabbers through the season, but their slots in the top-10 rubber-stamps their unerring ability to hit the mark. Likewise, Kasia Niewiadoma and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, both as well known for their near-misses as the victories, clock into the top-10 on the women’s side – a recognition of a consistency that gets lost in the record books.

The gauge of consistency also shines a light on just how divided the peloton can be.

Van Vleuten scored 50 percent more points than her nearest rivals in the world ranking. With AvV’s perennial rival Anna van der Breggen out of the picture in 2022, her dominance makes for a warning shot over the heads of the challengers to claim her crown next year. Demi Vollering – a close fourth in the rankings – could be the one to close her down.

Also read: Who can match AvV in 2022?

Pogačar was the man of the year thanks to his successes across grand tours, stage races, and monuments.

But it’s not just “Pog” that can win stage races and classics, and that’s proven by van Aert and Primož Roglič nipping close at his heels. But behind them, riders are left for dust in terms of versatility and consistency.

Also read: Pogačar hits hall of fame with multi-format success

Julian Alaphilippe, who won big at the road worlds, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and La Flèche Wallonne, came fourth overall, but he’s unlikely to win a stage race anytime soon. It’s the same story for Mathieu van der Poel. Like Vollering in the women’s peloton, it may be down to newcomers like Ethan Hayter to challenge in the long-term.

The things the numbers miss

He wasn’t the most prolific, but Cav is the 2021 sprinter we’ll remember in a few years’ time. (Photo: Stephane Mahe – Pool/Getty Images)

One reason why the WorldTour rankings can’t be taken too seriously is that you can’t put points on those intangibles that can elevate one result over another

Richard Carapaz’s Tour / Olympic summer made him a national hero in Ecuador and sees him stand toe-to-toe with Egan Bernal in the Ineos bus. He’ll be riding his spangly gold bike for four years and will be afforded room and respect in the peloton when he’s atop of it – despite “only” finishing 10th in the UCI system.

Similarly, Mark Cavendish’s comeback was one of the stories of the season.

But with his points coming almost solely from the Tour – his wins in Turkey carry small numbers – he sits back in 32nd.

Alpecin-Fenix pair Jasper Philipsen and Tim Merlier come out as top “pure” sprinters, and rightly so. But in five years from now, Cavendish and his four Tour wins will be the thing that stands out when thinking all-things sprint.

So, what does the UCI points system mean?

Beyond the team “promotion” system for second-tier squads, it means a whole lot, and not a lot, all at the same time.

But, it does give something to ponder when waiting for the new season to start. Dive in – I dare you.