There’s plenty of racing on at the moment, Friday will see five different international pro races happening plus the Tour de l’Avenir starts. Rider transfers announcements make the news too at the moment too. But what if the biggest stories were behind the scenes?
There’s the BinckBankTour, the Tour of Utah, the Vuelta a Burgos, the Czech Tour, the Arctic Race of Norway and the Vårgårda team time trial… and the Tour de l’Avenir as well. That’s just the racing and par for the course but at the moment there’s a lot going on that could shape the sport…
The rider transfer announcements keep coming but all the headline moves were trailed in advance. Mikel Landa will be Bahrain-Merida’s stage race leader, Vincenzo Nibali is going to Trek-Segafredo, Enric Mas to Movistar and so on, these were all stories that emerged long before they were announced. Similarly it’s barely news when Elia Viviani is going to Cofidis and Nairo Quintana is moving to Arkéa-Samsic although it’s still a surprise to see two stalwarts of the World Tour moving down to Pro Conti teams. Here’s one back stories here because both of these teams have ambitions to move up to the World Tour which is itself changing by expanding from 18 to 20 teams. Cofidis look certain to move up but “look” is the operative word as, assuming they clear the various administrative criteria, the formula for promotion is opaque. It’s not taken off the current team rankings based on a synthesis of team’s position over the last three years but good luck finding this ranking online or even the criteria as they’re not made public and team managers and a few ardent fans are running their own private spreadsheets. I suppose this adds to the mystique but in other sports promotion to the top flight is often a big deal, here it’s likely to be an administrative decision announced with a quiet press release in November.
Another similar story is that from 2020 onwards the top two teams Pro Conti teams – to be renamed UCI ProTeams next year – in the UCI World rankings (screengrabbed above) will get automatic invites to the World Tour races but they’re invites only, they can decline them so as not to overstretch their roster all year. So some teams who don’t want to ride all World Tour races but fancy doing the Tour de France are working on ways to get into the top two places, currently occupied by Wanty-Gobert and Total Direct Energie but the latter is considering a move to the World Tour as well, as is the next team Cofidis which means the second spot could go to Androni-Sidermec but Correndon-Circus is chasing, more on them in a minute. It’s all a game of moving chairs but one happening behind the scenes. But we’ll see, the idea behind this rule sort of made sense when there were 18 World Tour teams as it allowed two automatic invites and then two wilcards but if there were to be 20 World Tour teams with compulsory entry and then two with automatic invites that’s 22 teams and so no space available for others so perhaps this will be revised shortly but so far nothing’s public.
One big story is the future of the Katusha-Alpecin team, or rather whether it has a future. The story has been that the riders were informed they could look for a ride elsewhere for next year but the team still has assets of sorts in the shape of rider contracts for next year (a liability too, but “owning” riders like Nils Politt can be a bargaining chip too) and a World Tour licence. The squad continues to languish in the UCI rankings and there’s been all sorts of merger talk that the team could be folded into another squad. The Arkéa-Samsic one lasted about two hours before team boss Emmanuel Hubert said no way but from this emerged the idea that the team is being hawked around; there’s even been one story saying Bjarne Riis could pick up the reins. But mergers don’t work, it’s not like a company buying another to grow in scalke, the UCI has rules on maximum team size so if the remaining rump of Katusha riders is bolted onto another team then something has to give, riders would have to be let go. The knock-on effect of all this is that the uncertainty hangs over the sport in two ways, first whether there will be some key riders coming on the market or not and second whether there will be a World Tour freed up should the team stop altogether.
Katusha-Alpecin are sponsored by Canyon and this leads us to the next scenario which revolves around Mathieu van der Poel. He’s hot property to the point where an entire team could be built around him but in the meantime his Correndon-Circus team’s future is in doubt after the lead sponsor Correndon was bought, to cut a longer story short, by Sunweb. Normally two teams can’t have the same sponsor but there are ways around this; also Correndon-Circus and Sunweb probably won’t be merging as Sunweb have too many riders under contract already. Van der Poel doesn’t need to rush but other sponsors are busy looking at ways to tie things down at the moment.
Talking of Sunweb, another big story in the background is Tom Dumoulin’s future. He’s said to be leaving the team for Jumbo-Visma and things had reached the point where team owners were discussing a compensation or transfer payment. This is a big deal with a top grand tour contender but seems a contained matter for now with two teams involved and no outside offers from the likes of Ineos and Astana. A further backstory is the health of Dumoulin who looks set to sit out the Vuelta, hopefully this is precautionary rather than the sign of a chronic injury.
Sam Bennett’s having a fine time in the BinckBank Tour but “sprinter wins sprint” isn’t necessarily big news, especially by the time we get to August even if he’s won three stages in a row. Meanwhile there’s a lot going on behind the scenes and plenty of uncertainty with the Katusha team’s future in doubt and rescue merger talks for the squad having been held with several teams and this in turn brings the knock-on effects to the World Tour as several Pro Conti teams apply for promotion. Meanwhile the league table used to grade them is private and we should get the news in the autumn assuming the rules are not changed between now and then.