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.
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.