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WorldTour: Five men with a shot to win

The WorldTour series may be contrived, with the peloton yet to embrace it, but for the five favorites in 2013, the points chase is on

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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) – Cycling puts its best face forward this week as the peloton clips back into gear after a tumultuous offseason and tries to leave the Lance Armstrong scandal in the rearview mirror.

Despite the fog of scandal hanging over the sport, cycling rolls on. The 15th Santos Tour Down Under marks the opening of the 2013 WorldTour calendar.

Some nine months from now, a world No. 1 will be crowned, but will anyone care?

Even without the Armstrong scandal churning negative headlines, the WorldTour rankings have become so diluted and garbled that no one seems to pay attention.

Cycling has never been able to get its head around a season-long series and the latest points system is perhaps its most dysfunctional, at least in terms of measuring quality and quantity throughout cycling’s long racing calendar.

Unlike the Yankees winning the American League pennant or Fernando Alonso claiming the Formula 1 series, a season-long prize just doesn’t fit in cycling.

In a team sport dominated by individual performances, it’s winning Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de France, or the world title that counts.

That hasn’t stopped the UCI from trying. Earlier efforts of combining one-day races, first with the Super Prestige Pernod and then the World Cup, each were replaced just when they appeared to finally be gaining some heft among the peloton.

The UCI ditched the World Cup, which was a collection of the season’s major one-day races, in favor of the ill-fated ProTour in 2005.

After a pitched battle between the UCI and the major race organizers, the ProTour died a quick death in favor of two parallel calendars. That jumbled mess made sense to no one and in 2011, the calendars were merged into today’s WorldTour.

In its latest form, the series is a collection of all the season’s major races, 30 in total, including the classics and other one-day races, the important weeklong races, such as Paris-Nice and the Vuelta al País Vasco, and the three grand tours.

Key to the series is a controversial points system that is the bane of both teams and riders.

Teams need points to assure a place in the WorldTour league while riders need points to assure a contract.

Yet the points system has been heavily criticized by many within the peloton.

Points are weighed toward placings, with the victor gaining the majority of the spoils. Fair enough, but the system is rigged against workers and domestiques who play a huge role in the victory but end up far beyond the range of scoring points.

Unlike the previous rolling points system, which went much deeper in the result sheet and was measured against all UCI-sanctioned races, the latest algebra only tallies points from the leading finishers from ProTeam squads racing in WorldTour events.

For example, the Tour de France winner gains 200 points for racing three weeks, while the winner of a monument earns 100 points for six hours of racing. A Tour stage is worth 20 points while the winner of the Tour Down Under receives 100 points.

Winners take all, meaning that individual riders get the ever-important points while their respective teammates, who helped make that victory possible, are left out in the cold. Now, only riders punching into the top 20 at the Tour gain any points. Everyone else gets zilch.

Under the former UCI ranking system, points were much deeper and riders collected points in every sanctioned race they started if they finished reasonably well, regardless if it was in America, Asia or Europe. So if a rider took pulls for three weeks in the Tour yet notched some podiums in the some minor one-day races, they would still gain at least some points.

No so in today’s system. Because teams are in a desperate chase for points, some riders lost jobs afte 2012 for being unable to bring points to the table.

One example is Joost Posthuma, a hard-working domestique who lost his ride with RadioShack-Leopard after an injury-plagued 2012 left him without points. Amets Txurruka, a popular Basque attacker, was dropped by points-hungry Euskaltel-Euskadi in favor of obscure riders packing points. Posthuma retired and Txurruka got a lifeline from Caja Rural, a Pro Continental team.

Now entering its third season of its latest incarnation, the WorldTour title is important to teams (see Katusha’s argument in its ongoing license battle), but much less so to individual riders.

Teams want points to secure a racing license. Riders want to win races. It’s as simple as that.

The series favors all-rounders over specialists. Classics riders and grand tour captains stay focused on their specific goals, meaning they rarely race an entire season at full gas.

In fact, few riders in the modern peloton can perform at a high level, across varied disciplines, from January to October, so much so that the hunt for the WorldTour title is all but reduced to about a dozen riders.

The points come with the wins, so a rider on a hot streak will sometimes bubble to the top only to fade later. Last year saw a few examples of this.

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) started 2012 hot, winning the Tour Down Under and Milan-San Remo, only to finish sixth in the end-of-year standings.

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) started off like gangbusters as well, taking over from Gerrans and holding the lead after his brilliant spring, only to finish third — nearly 300 points behind eventual winner Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha). Boonen clearly stated the WorldTour title was never a goal.

Later, Bradley Wiggins (Sky) held a commanding lead following his dominance in the spring stage races, capped by winning the Tour, but he pulled the plug on his season in early August after striking gold in the Olympics.

The allure of possibly winning the WorldTour title couldn’t temp Wiggins back on the bike after his major objectives were won.

Rodríguez, second in the Giro d’Italia and third in the Vuelta a España, secured the title with victory at the Giro di Lombardia, but didn’t bother competing in the season finale at the Tour of Beijing in October.

For the most part, no one starts the Tour Down Under this week thinking about winning the WorldTour title. There’s no special jersey that comes with the series nor is there dedicated prize money.

And the latter is the one thing that triggers the competitive juices of everyone in the peloton: money.

In 2011, Philippe Gilbert raced like a maniac to win the title due to a reported $650,000 contract bonus paid by Omega Pharma-Lotto team sponsors for winning the WorldTour title.

That, more than anything, will keep riders chasing the points.

Favorites for the 2013 WorldTour

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha): “Purito” is the prototype WorldTour rider; the 2012 champion has the varied skillset and staying power to thrive under the way the series is set up right now. Rodríguez is one of the few riders who can perform across the season, from hilly one-day races to strong GC in stage races. His worry now is that his Katusha team was denied a WorldTour license and has been given a temporary Pro Continental license to start the season. If Katusha’s license appeal fails and he races under a Pro Continental license, Rodríguez’s results won’t count in the WorldTour rankings. With an obsession to return to the Tour de France to fight for the podium, Rodríguez has vowed to jettison the team. If “Purito” is smoking like he was in 2012, he could easily win again — if he can land on a team in the race.

Peter Sagan (Cannondale): The kid from Slovakia, eighth in 2012, is poised for a huge season. Three stage wins and the green jersey at the Tour de France last year, not to mention a slew of other results, were just a preview of what Sagan is capable of. His killer instinct, unbridled ambition and ever-growing confidence will make him the man to beat in just about any one-day race he starts this year. He will be a podium favorite for all the spring classics, minus Paris-Roubaix, and seems poised to win at least one. Taking the flowers in a one-week stage race is not out of the cards (he’s already done it at the Tour of Poland), so expect Sagan to gobble up plenty of points as the season unfolds.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing): The rainbow jersey should give Gilbert wings throughout the season. The Belgian, winner of the series in 2011, has already promised an ambitious racing schedule that includes the classics, perhaps two grand tours, and plenty of other racing to honor the rainbow stripes. Gilbert’s handicap is that he never ranks highly in the GC, meaning that he will need a repeat of his 2011 Ardennes treble to have any hope for the series. And that’s just what he plans to do, with an audacious goal of trying to win Milan-San Remo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège this spring.

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana): “The Shark” is betting everything on the Giro d’Italia. A showdown with Bradley Wiggins and Ryder Hesjedal will be one of the top stories of the year. If Nibali, fourth in the 2012 WorldTour, can win the maglia rosa and a few stages, he’ll snag huge points early. With the worlds on a hilly course in Italy, Nibali will likely start the Vuelta a España in what would give him another chance to chase points against the Spanish mountain goats. He’s already proven he’s up to the task, winning the 2010 Vuelta. His strong ride in last year’s Liège proves that Nibali can also perform in the classics. It might only be a question of staying healthy and motivated.

Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff): The “pistolero del Pinto” is taking aim at one race: the Tour de France. After two years battling his clenbuterol ban, Contador returned to racing last summer without missing a beat, winning the Vuelta in one dramatic, late-race throw-down to snatch victory away from Rodríguez. Contador is a born winner and has a keen competitive streak to race to win in every event he starts, but he promises to race differently in 2013 in order to arrive at the Tour with the absolute guarantee of having the best chances to win. Contador’s racing schedule will go a long way toward seeing if he has any chance of accumulating enough points to challenge for the top spot. A return to the Vuelta is likely, though the Tour is what it’s all about this year. Of course, UCI rules state that Contador’s points won’t count anyway for another full season, something his team is challenging.

Other challengers: Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is always a steady performer throughout the season and he won the ProTour in two of its four seasons (2006 and 2008). Like Contador, he is focusing on the Tour in what he believes is a real shot for the podium.

Valverde’s Movistar teammate Rui Costa could be a surprise this season and will gain more responsibility to race for results in such races as the Basque Country tour and Vuelta.

Wiggins and Sky teammate Chris Froome are focused on the grand tours, guaranteeing them a lot of points if they’re winning stages and riding the podium

Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) is another consistent performer all season long — he won the 2007 ProTour — but following his illness-plagued 2012 campaign, his focus is on the Tour.

2013 WorldTour calendar

22.01.2013 27.01.2013 Santos Tour Down Under (AUS)
03.03.2013 10.03.2013 Paris-Nice (FRA)
06.03.2013 12.03.2013 Tirreno-Adriatico (ITA)
17.03.2013 17.03.2013 Milan-San Remo (ITA)
18.03.2013 24.03.2013 Volta Ciclista a Catalunya (ESP)
22.03.2013 22.03.2013 E3 Harelbeke (BEL)
24.03.2013 24.03.2013 Ghent-Wevelgem (BEL)
31.03.2013 31.03.2013 Ronde van Vlaanderen (BEL)
01.04.2013 06.04.2013 Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco (ESP)
07.04.2013 07.04.2013 Paris-Roubaix (FRA)
14.04.2013 14.04.2013 Amstel Gold Race (NED)
17.04.2013 17.04.2013 La Flèche Wallonne (BEL)
21.04.2013 21.04.2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liège (BEL)
23.04.2013 28.04.2013 Tour de Romandie (SUI)
04.05.2013 26.05.2013 Giro d’Italia (ITA)
02.06.2013 09.06.2013 Critérium du Dauphiné (FRA)
08.06.2013 16.06.2013 Tour de Suisse (SUI)
29.06.2013 21.07.2013 Tour de France (FRA)
27.07.2013 27.07.2013 Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian (ESP)
27.07.2013 03.08.2013 Tour de Pologne (POL)
12.08.2013 18.08.2013 Eneco Tour (NED)
24.08.2013 15.09.2013 Vuelta a España (ESP)
25.08.2013 25.08.2013 Vattenfall Cyclassics (GER)
01.09.2013 01.09.2013 GP Ouest France-Plouay (FRA)
13.09.2013 13.09.2013 Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec (CAN)
15.09.2013 15.09.2013 Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal (CAN)
06.10.2013 06.10.2013 Giro di Lombardia (ITA)
09.10.2013 13.10.2013 Tour of Hangzhou (CHN)
16.10.2013 20.10.2013 Tour of Beijing (CHN)