Every year at about this time, the same question always comes up: Does the UCI WorldTour points championship really mean anything?
Once again, veteran Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde clinched the individual title, with Joaquim Rodríguez, Nairo Quintana, Alexander Kristoff, and Fabio Aru rounding out the top five. Remarkably, Valverde and his countryman Rodríguez, have combined to win this title five out of the six years since the WorldTour began.
While both men are consistently top riders, and are widely acknowledged as among the strongest and smartest racers in the peloton, some question if they are the absolute best in the world. Alberto Contador — multiple grand tour victor, often considered the best stage racer of this generation — has never won the points championship. Chris Froome — winner of two of the last three Tours de France — hasn’t won it either.
Although well-intended, the WorldTour points championship has really never caught on with the public for several reasons. The scoring system and rationale is not easy to understand. For example, why isn’t the rider who won the most races (Kristoff) the champion? Why aren’t the winners of the big grand tours (Contador, Froome, Aru) ranked more highly? Winning in pro cycling is a game of inches — often literally. It’s possible that a rider ends up with half the points of his archrival, even though he was only a wheel-width from winning. Is that fair? And finally, some ask, “How can this be a real championship if the outcome is known before the season is even finished?”
Several ideas have been proposed to make the point system more equitable and more reflective of the true nature of the sport. The UCI could “flatten out” the points so they aren’t as focused on the winner or top finishers. It could rebalance the relative importance of races, so that points better reflect the historical or financial significance of races. Maybe it could award extra points to the individual jersey winners in tours? Or to all the riders on the winner’s team? What about the more subtle, strategic aspects of the race — how about some “domestique of the day” points?
But none of those changes would remove the controversy. In fact, they could make it worse. The other ranking models, developed by stat sites like Cycling Quotient and ProCyclingStats, utilize more complex algorithms, and they still suffer from the same qualitative weaknesses and arbitrary judgments. And at some point, more analytical detail runs into the law of diminishing returns — a fancier system won’t have much appeal if it is inscrutable.
Plus, all these systems tend to come up with the more or less the same answer anyway: Valverde leads in all three major ranking systems.
The real problem with the points system occurred a few years ago, when it was used to determine which teams did or did not qualify for a WorldTour license. Fortunately, with a smaller pool of top pro teams at the moment, this is not a problem. The point-buying schemes, controversial rider transfer shenanigans, and irrational teamwork disincentives (see “What’s the Point?” in the July 2013 issue of Velo magazine) have lessened. But the UCI does need to ensure that it finds another more logical and less disruptive way to measure “sporting criteria,” so that these problems don’t reoccur, should the pool of teams increase again in the future.
At the end of the day, the points system basically works as intended — a simplified measure for fans to track the best all-round, most consistent day-to-day and season-long GC rider. Not necessarily the strongest, the fastest, the most popular, or the winner of the biggest races — just the most consistent. And let’s face it; at the end of the day, cycling just doesn’t lend itself to the sort of clear-cut quantitative analysis that other sports like baseball or basketball do.
There will never be a single best rider, best climber, or best domestique. Instead, in every race, cycling presents a rich and diverse fabric of differing physical strengths and mental skills. There are many different kinds of winners, and that is part of the allure and magnificence of the sport.
Steve Maxwell is a business consultant, writer, and cyclist in Boulder, Colorado. He is a frequent contributor to VeloNews, and is also the co-editor of theouterline.com, which publishes detailed analyses of structural, economic, and governance issues in pro cycling. Follow him on twitter @theouterline.