Ag2r’s Iranian rescue plan

Monday, 26 September 2011

Mehdi Sohrabi

For a brief moment in the Worlds on Sunday Iranian rider Hossein Askari jumped away from the bunch. This might be the first time you’ve seen an Iranian cyclist competing at the top level. But the Iranians have a strong team and the Tabriz Petrochemical Cycling Team is second only to HTC-Highroad in the number of wins this year.

These results aren’t just impressive by themselves, they come with UCI ranking points. Iran is the top ranked nation on the UCI’s Asia Tour rankings and Tabriz and another Iranian team, Azad University, are first and second. Mehdi Sohrabi leads the individual rankings with 304 points.

As you might realise, these points are valuable and it seems Biciclismo reports French team Ag2r-La Mondiale is talking to Sohrabi about a contract for 2012. The French squad needs to do something given it sits at the bottom of the UCI’s World Tour rankings. This is a risky spot to occupy because of the team is not meeting the “sporting merit” criteria set by the UCI. It risks relegation to the Pro Continental level and this means the team has to hope for a wildcard for the Tour de France and other big races. FDJ for example has faced problems because it only rode one grand tour this year, depriving its riders of valuable three week racing opportunities.

The recruitment of Sohrabi could bring enough points to the French team to help it stay in the top league. I quite like the idea of supporting riders from around the world. But when you look more closely you have to question the motivations and incentives at work here. Would Sohrabi, soon to turn 30, get a spot on the Ag2r team if the UCI did not have this ranking system? Non, as they say in French.

Sohrabi is being targeted for his points and not his abilities. If this is a potentially clever move by Ag2r, there’s a cynical streak too. I can see why the team is fishing for points but what about looking closer to home? The team had a stage win in the Giro with John Gadret but this was their only win in the Pro Tour and they’ve gathered just four other wins and in races like the modest Tour du Poitou Charentes and the Etoile de Bessèges. Similarly the team took 19 wins last year but if Christophe Riblon took a great Tour de France stage win the majority were in small-fry races on the French calendar. This team rarely wins big. It almost feels as if the team is more suited to Pro Conti status and their woes won’t be solved by the recruitment of an points-rich Iranian.

Summary
Teams recruit riders from smaller teams all the time but I can’t help feel this is simply because of the points haul rather than the promise to develop talent. Perhaps We can’t blame Ag2r for responding to the incentives created by the UCI’s ranking systems and I expect other teams might start copying this. But it’s amusing that a French team seeking certain entry to the Tour de France could find the answer comes via Iran.

ChrisO September 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm

I suspect you are right about the motivation.

But if this is the case… and the implication is that the points picked up on the Asian and tour are perhaps slightly easier to come by, isn’t another option for the Euro teams to send some riders into the other tours, spreading a bit more experience and talent and picking up some points as well.

I’m no fan of the ranking system but if it helps to make the sport and teams a bit more global then it might have some value.

Adrian September 26, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Do well in smaller races, earn points and get a shot at the big time. That seems like a good system if it forces teams to look outside their own backyard.

FarAway September 26, 2011 at 3:16 pm

I maybe missing something here, but what value have UCI points from Europe or Asia Tour compared with the UCI world tour points? Because Sohrabi scored only Asia Tour points, how are they taken into account in the next year team rankings (is one Asia Tour point equal to one World Tour point?)?

cd September 26, 2011 at 3:52 pm

It didn’t help that Roche stunk up the road this year after all his bluster last year.

ave September 26, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Aren’t UCI points are just that, UCI points?
Nations qualify with points, whether its riders score in the TdF or in a 1.2 race.

Felipe Botelho September 26, 2011 at 4:13 pm

These points system ends up bringing the teams to a crossroad: to develop young riders with great potential or go fishing for points around the world to maintain the ProTeam status. But I have to agree with ChrisO that the system could help making the sport and teams a bit more global. And that is good. It also gives some riders a chance to demonstrate some potential that they otherwise could not have. Now, can a balance be achieved between fishing for points and the development of young riders?

FarAway September 26, 2011 at 4:19 pm

@ave: That was what I believed, but if you visit the rankings on the UCI website, there are 6 separate rankings (Europe, Oceania, Asia, Africa, America and World Tour).
Moreover, the leader of the Europe Tour is Visconti with 636 points, a score that would place him 2nd of the World Tour ranking (above Evans who got 574 points). That is why I think World, Europe or World Tour points may not have the same value, but I am quite confused with that..

dpcott September 26, 2011 at 6:57 pm

I think @faraway, @ave and I have come up with your next story to dig into. That being finding an answer to the weight of the different UCI points. Is it 2:1 ratio of Europe, Asia etc. to World tour? I have always wondered about how those points come into play when determining team classification.

Completely agree that AG2R’s performance but also their EFFORTS make it look like they dont belong in the WT. FDJ was EVERYWHERE during the Tour and AG2R was rarely seen.

Miso Kuropka September 26, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Chapeau! What an example of a case when system and its rules kill the sport (the fundamental).

Starr September 26, 2011 at 11:32 pm

I’m assuming this will be the first Persian to compete on the top pro level (I’d say World Tour, but the name has changed over the decades)

mynameis September 27, 2011 at 10:32 am

Riding on other continents is just not an option for some teams, specially those who are on tight budgets. Probably big teams like Radioshack, Leopard or BMC can afford to prepare a team of 6-8 riders and send them ride on Asia if the jackpot is interesting enough (which somehow, I doubt is the case) but for other teams with fewer riders and resources, sacrificing an European race just for the points they could get in a different continent is simply not worth the effort.

About the points for the different rankings, usually riders on Europe Tour or Asia Tour can get more points than say Evans on World Tour for two basic reasons:
1) There is fewer competence, so if you target the correct races you can score big. In World Tour each victory is hardly fought. Nico Eeckhout won several years in a row the Europe Tour thanks to this approach.
2) There are much more races in those calendars than in World Tour

Dennis September 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Cyclingnews wrote about the points system for licence earlier this year, and according to the manual that they posted pictures of, Sohrabi will get 20 points from the Asian Tour ranking this year (and presumably the same amount from last year). Top 10 on the World Tour is worth 100 points, and top 5 on the European gives you 50. There are also points from different races, I guess that someone who’s not yet bored can calculate how many points Sohrabi will bring Ag2r.

Karsten September 27, 2011 at 5:55 pm

I think there is another point that people are missing here- Iranian riders and teams are not invited to many races due to sanctions and travel restrictions. In this situation its a win-win IMO because the Iranian rider will actually get to ride in the Pro Tour on a team with a better race schedule and larger budget while simultaneously exposing Iran’s talent pool to the world. AG2R get its points and perhaps a competent rider that can continue to go on fruitless breakaways for them in every race.

Cameron September 29, 2011 at 11:46 am

I agree with Karsten, this is a win-win situation, however cynically you look at it. Sohrabi gets his shot at the big time, Iranian and Asian cycling gets exposure as a potential avenue into the ProTour and AG2R get their points needed. It’s not like they are going to bring him and then make him do training rides every day of the year either, he will race. If this is just a one year contract for “points grabbing” then that’s AG2R’s fault, they’ll be back where they started next year. I don’t see how this is a negative aspect of the UCI’s rules either, sure Oscuro Italiano or his French cousin may miss out on getting a contract next year but then they should be addressing the problem of how they got in that situation, not who to blame.

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