If you race you might know that moment when the pace is so furious that everyone is lined out and you’re struggling to hold the wheel in front. All you can think of is preventing a gap opening up, until the moment comes when you wonder who on earth is at the front making life so hard for you and everyone else? Well it’s not just during a race that this happens, anyone trying to follow the rules that underpin our sport must also be struggling for breath as the UCI keeps churning them revisions and new rules.
Yesterday saw the second set of rules issued this year, the new version (PDF) replaces those published on 1 January. Cyclingnews.com has picked up some of the novelties and changes but there’s more to examine.
Now a lot of these rules aren’t going to alter the racing, so skip this post if you’re not bothered about technical topics like relegation, rankings, appearance money, capping the number of race days and the status of the new World Tour races.
First let’s address the rankings, the new system was released just before Christmas. The very idea of rankings is dubious in pro cycling because riders and their race programmes are hard to compare. Is Romain Bardet better than Alexander Kristoff? Is Giacomo Nizzolo better than Richie Porte? In both cases the current rankings say yes but the table is is an exercise in arithmetic rather than the direct comparison of riders with different body types, career goals and race programmes. It’s like trying to rank track and field athletes regardless of their chosen speciality or to list the world’s best wines in order. By all means have a go.
As a recap the UCI’s World Tour calendar has
bloated expanded this year with ten new events comprising 28 days of racing added without much rhyme or reason. For clarity in this piece let’s call term these New World Tours or “NEWTS”.
Now the secondary status of the NEWTS is confirmed twice over by the new rules. For starters they have fewer ranking points so a win in Dwars door Vlaanderen, a NEWT, is worth less than the E3 Harelbeke which has been in the World Tour since 2012; victory in the Tour of California, a NEWT, earns fewer points than the Tour of Poland. This is understandable as it reflects the tradition and prestige of the established events but complicated too because fans can’t be expected to look up whether the Strade Bianche or the Eneco Tour is a great race or a newbie NEWT.
To confuse things further, the new Rule 2.15.011b (pictured) says that when it comes to determing the team’s continued presence in the World Tour they’ll be ranked on sum of points earned from races that were on in the World Tour last year, so any points gained in the NEWTS don’t count. Now this is being done to ensure teams are ranked on a comparable basis, that their status and survival isn’t based on doing more races but derived from the days when they all went head-to-ahead. But it means the public UCI World Tour ranking is not the one that necessarily drive the riders and teams, they will continue to be pre-occupied by this hidden ranking because their existence depends on it.
Another big change with the new system is that points go down to 60th place in races, the idea being to reward more riders with the valuable currency of UCI points. This is true but there’s an steep gradient with only crumbs on offer for 30-60th places. But there are points to be earned by adopting stealthy strategies, for example placing 11th overall in a NEWT stage race is hard but probably unseen but it’s worth as much as glorious stage win. Similarly Finishing 20th in the Ride London Classic and you’ll get as many points as you do for wearing the sacred maglia rosa for a day in the Giro. So look out for races where a big breakaway is away for the day and contests the win… and then 10 minutes later riders surge off the front of the idle peloton in a bid to secure 17th place and some points.
The next big change is the participation rules for the new World Tour races. Traditionally the World Tour teams have raced all the World Tour races, a compulsory factor that ensured the best teams at the biggest races. This is no longer the case as Rule 2.15.191 says the new events must invite all the World Tour teams. Only if a World Tour team declines to start can the event issue an invitation to a Pro Conti team.
If the event fails to secure a minimum of 10 World Tour teams on the start line “during two consecutive editions, the registration of the said event shall be withdrawn from the UCI WorldTour calendar”. Did events applying for World Tour status know this would happen and do they pay a lower UCI calendar fee given their inferior status?
1-800 Velon: the need to invite and woo ten teams in order to keep a NEWT race in the World Tour opens up a curious political aspect. The Ride London race takes place next year on the busiest weekend with the Tour of Poland and the Clasica San Sebastian also on, and all just the week after the Tour de France has ended. If the British race can’t get 10 World Tour teams then it’ll be dropped out of the calendar, what to do? Well it’s done a deal with the Velon group of teams meaning they’ll all start and so the race’s status is assured. Now any new World Tour event will be thinking of doing the same otherwise they’ll be dropped from the calendar which gives the Velon group considerable bargaining power considering it represents 10 of the 18 World Tour teams. Now many teams want to ride the Tour of California because of the TV reach and audience demographic but the same can’t be said of the Tour of Turkey who will have to start waving some lira to swell the start list or get bounced out of the World Tour. It doesn’t have to be Velon but of the ten members act as a block then it does because if they don’t go the race gets demote. Indeed if the Velon teams wanted to up their beef with ASO they could refuse to show up at the newly promoted GP Frankfurt which has just been bought by ASO and thus relegating ASO’s new acquisition. That’s speculation but back to reality and new rules (2.15.239-241) say that teams must now declare appearance fees, at least in private to the UCI and their auditors. The creation of this rule seems to hint that appearance fees are becoming a thing and need to be accounted for and monitored but exact drafting isn’t watertight so creative types may find a way to avoid declaring these.
Team Licences and Relegation
Team licences have traditionally been awarded on the basis of four criteria: sporting, admin, financial and ethical. Now comes a fifth one with the “organisational” criteria (Rule 2.15.011) which are detailed in a separate annex to the rules (PDF). This is a big change which involves several points:
- preparation: World Tour teams must employ full time trainers and work out an agreed training and race schedule with riders which allows for training, competition and rest periods during the season
- coaching: sports directors and coaching staff are to be separated, the rule says only “qualified” sports directors can train riders
- care: teams must have a doctor and written policies on medical access and the use of internal data
- workload: a rider can’t do more than 85 days of racing a year. In case you’re wondering last year 32 riders did 86 days or more
- certification: people occupying roles within a team need to back up their role with qualification or certification, eg a team doctor needs to show the UCI their medical papers
These points incorporate much of the ISSUL audit principles explained here before which is good. But these new rules are woolier than a warehouse of merino undervests. For example they stipulate a rider can’t do more than 85 days of racing a year but the very next paragraph says if this happens it needs to be explained. Here it is:
We go from “must not” racing more than 85 days to “may be required” that the rider had rest if they exceeded in in the space of a few pixels. Similarly what does “qualified” mean when it comes to coaching? Do you need a paper certificate, a sports science diploma, can years of empircal experience count? Can Jonathan Vaughters coach Pierre Rolland and Joe Dombrowksi, can Steven de Jongh can train Alberto Contador because they’re managers, not sports scientists or qualified coaches.
Relegation: currently there are 18 teams in the World Tour and the rules confirm the plans to shrink to 16. When? It’s up to the teams because if a team stops then a berth will be taken away, currently no team will be relegated. In other words were an existing team to fold then it takes its licence with it, so, for the sake of illustration if the Abu Dhabi sponsors back out as quickly as they appeared then there would be 17 teams and eventually the maximum number of teams can be 17. So is relegation off the cards? Not quite. It is off the agenda for the 2018 season as any World Tour team among the existing 18 is secure but for 2019 and beyond then the lowest ranked team will be placed alongside new applicants, be they Pro Conti or teams starting from scratch, and the best squad gets the licence. Best squad? That’s on the basis of their best five riders by points.
Confused? There’s a lot to digest and it’s complicated too. As a package these changes are clumsy, you can see why some have occurred but they feel like a temporary design before further reforms. Some things make sense, others confuse and bits of them are drafted in ambiguous terms. This constant regulatory tinkering, some of it announced the week before the season starts, means everyone has a hard time trying to keep up.
The good news is that a lot of this is behind the scenes, you don’t need to know about rule 2.15.011 or worry about someone’s definition of a coach to enjoy a race. Most of the above doesn’t alter the fundamental premise of a bike race being, in the words of Marzio Bruseghin via Eddy Merckx – The Cannibal, “200 idiots trying to cross a white line” or more poetically a dash across the landscape. Most of the above won’t alter the racing, even if the rankings shake-up could play on the tactics at times.
But if you want to understand the structures behind the sport then it’s to keep up. You might wonder if your preferred team faces relegation or whether your local World Tour race will thrive or fail. The answers aren’t obvious. Even close study of the new rules – reading the PDFs so you don’t have to – is frustrating: first because they keep changing which means even avid bloggers give up investing their time in following what’s going on (why master the latest rules if they’ll be revised within weeks or months?); second because the changes are contradictory and complex. If it’s bad enough for you, imagine if you’re a team manager handling sponsorship?