Relegation tales

Amir Zagari
Most valuable players

Ag2r-La Mondiale are in the UCI World Tour. This status guarantees the French team entry to all the big races. But this position is under review given their low rankings.

To summarise, any team sitting in 14-18th place in the UCI’s internal rankings sees the position in the top flight under review. Right now Ag2r, the new Lotto-Ridley team, Katusha and Geox sit in this “relegation zone”. Dropping down to Pro Continental status is not automatic, simply the position reviewed and set against the arrival of new applicants.

In a bid to lift themselves up, Ag2r have been trying to sign new riders. A couple of weeks ago I wrote how they were close to signing Iranian rider Mehdi Sohrabi but in fact he went to Geox-TMC, the Italo-Hispanic squad is also in need of ranking points.

Now Ag2r have three new riders. They are Iranian Amir Zargari, Russian Boris Shpilevsky and Slovenian Gregor Gazvoda. They sit in third, fifth and sixth place in the UCI’s Asia Tour rankings and bring valuable points. They have one year contracts. As such, Ag2r climb in the rankings but it’s very close, they only just pass Geox and Katusha.

And right now Oscar Freire is in talks with Katusha and the Russian squad needs his points. The recruitment of the trio by Ag2r now means Katusha will have to sign Freire. It’s amusing that Ag2r ends up hiring a Russian which could prompt a Russian team to hire a Spaniard.

Worth it?
But it’s worth asking whether it’s worth it. Clearly team manager Vincent Lavenu thinks it is for his squad. But let’s explore the other side. Applying for a licence costs €100,000 and having to race on several fronts plus do three grand tours per year means a larger squad is needed, in short it’s expensive. But what if the benefits could be obtained without the costs? Hiring a rider who could win more races and make the team an attractive wildcard for the Tour de France organisers is another method and for Ag2r doors are already open because the team is French. But this is risky – what happens if the star recruit gets ill? – and Lavenu seems to prefer the certainty. As for Katusha or Geox, they need the World Tour status to ensure they ride the big races.

Winners and losers?
The winners here are the riders on the Asia tour and other rankings who can literally cash in their points for a spot with a big team, banking a salary that will let them live like a king back home.

But I can’t help feel the notion of sport loses. There are four pillars for a World Tour licence: administrative, financial, ethical and sporting. I can’t help feeling it’s not exactly sporting recruiting thirty-something riders for their points. This is a transaction: cash for points.

Vino Casino
Zero points

Not that pro teams are ignoring new riders, Ag2r have signed Romain Bardet, one of the top amateurs in France this year but the pressure to stay in the top flight is creating incentives to hire points that seems pretty short term. It’s all a long way from the days when Vincent Lavenu went out of his way to recruit a kid with a face almost carved from granite from a country nobody had heard of. His name was Alexandre Vinkourov and he had no points.

Riders are normally signed to a team because of what they can bring in the future, whether their reputation or their ability. Now some riders are being signed for their retrospective points haul. It’s good for lesser riders who can step up but I worry the recruitment of these riders isn’t about helping promising riders try bigger races, it’s just a move to keep teams in the top flight. If squads resort to this, do they really deserve a place at the top?

16 thoughts on “Relegation tales”

  1. Nice perspective. As well as the untested juniors, it also makes me also wonder about the value of the domestique in this new points driven world of the UCI World tour. I know that it is hard to categorise some riders (sometimes classics specialist, sometimes domestique) however I wonder if there is sense in the UCI asking for a balanced team list as part of the application. A certain age spread, a certain number of sprinters, domestiques, gt contenders, and first year pros etc. This could also help the UCI as the teams would be able to be competitive across the whole calendar. It would also discourage the teams which are cherry pickers and are often only seen at the front of races in Grand Tours. The stock piling of GC contenders and classics contenders would also be reduced…. Although this would negate free market forces in the transfer market, the “free market forces” which exist are already artificially influenced by the UCI points system….

  2. inrng, my thoughts exactly, but as usual much better formulated than I could even dream of. Hopefully, the UCI sees these weak spots, too, but I’m afraid it’s only a minor issue for them. Maybe they even see this as an incentive to further globalize the sport.

  3. @AndrewAlpen – when it’s the lower level teams doing it, and they’re still struggling to make the points cut the next season, I cannot see the UCI caring much or at all.

    If however a team did it and turned themselves in to some sort of super team then I think that might arouse more suspicion.

    For mine it’s really treating your team like a business, what can the acquisitions bring to the team. I would hope the DS’ see as much chance of success the following year (as the rider has a good track record) as much as they see the current year’s points haul.

  4. I am a bit baffled by this post. DS’s should not be concerning themselves with what “the acquisitions bring to the team”? Given the state of the sport and the sponsorship issues it is facing I think it would be very dangerous for teams to ignore proven riders and their points. Sure the points represent past performances but isn’t that how all riders are evaluated? Even the youngest ones? We’re not talking about yearlings being auctioned off based solely on bloodline.

    I also think these signings bode well for the globalization of the sport. Maybe some day we’ll have teams actually wanting to travel to far-flung races without having their arms twisted by the races’ promoters, er… governing body.

  5. AndrewAlpen: maybe the sporting criteria could just remain that, and not just a reliance on the rankings?

    Tim: the UCI’s world cycling centre is a good idea, it helps places riders into teams.

    Nick: yes, it we view the team as a business then this is like buying insurance, no?

    Ethan Glading: it’s more that these riders aren’t that proven. They are last minute hires as the team shops for points. Good for them but I’d like to see the squad getting behind new talent, like they did with Vino, but this isn’t the case.

  6. My idea was that the team received half of the points for supporting the rider who won the points. That way supporting riders are somewhat rewarded for their efforts. It would also slow down the “cash for points” as a team would also have to earn their own points to stay competitive.

  7. I agree these end of season purchases are all a little grabby and rather uncouth but that’s sport. As you point out, Ag2r have spent the smarter money. Freire’s sun is setting and you could probably buy the entire Iranian squad for less than half his inflated salary. I hope Zagari settles in and his racing benefits, as well as his bank balance.

  8. the whole system is flawed and mostly because it isn’t very (at all?) transparent.

    Eventually everything ends up back on the Vaughtersest “revenue sharing” argument but….

    Somehow a transparent system that would also be visible throughout the year would be best for all. I know all of these things increase the tendancy to allow doping but if we had some kind of relegation battle near the end of the season races would have other dimensions. More spreadsheets and calculations going into Lombardy but it’d be interesting to see how that’d change the racing. It also solves andrewalpen’s problem of needing a varied squad and does so under a “free market”.

    With proper licensing rules (funds, sponsors, ethical ideals junior/women’s teams perhaps etc where there is no “ranking” per se, only complience) then the **only** thing to judge teams on can be sporting merit.

  9. So what we should have is a system like football leagues where you stand or fall on a yearly basis based on the results of the TEAM over the last year, not on individual points attributed to riders ?

    This would make more sense from a sporting point of view and would also be rewarded by sponsors who would be happy to continue funding a succesful coach/manager who can identify and nuture great talent.

    Why isnt this model already in place ?

  10. I don’t care about ag2r hiring random Asians who will probably be invisible on the Euro scene, that’s the UCI’s fault for making that possible and necessary. The worst thing is that we see capable gregarios sitting in for 8th in the Dauphine instead of going for stage wins. The problem is that 8th in GC is valued more highly during contract season than helping your teammate get to 1st (because of points). The whole team (that was present) should get some of the points haul for a podium place and spots outside the podium should be devalued (who remembers those guys anyhow?).

    In addition to that, I’d like to see points depend on panache, right now a surge in the final meters is equivalent to an attack from 2 mountains out. A win is a win but some are more memorable or glamorous than others. If you get a 50% points bonus for a 50k breakaway compared to a sprint we might see more activity from the favorites and more minutes of interest to the viewer during the TV coverage.

  11. Hold on, how is it that an Asian rider (who has clearly done well across the course of a season) is being touted as “unproven”.

    Hardly a neo-Pro. These are men who whilst they might not have been at Euro race standards (yet) still certainly know what to do in order to get to the top of the results sheet.

  12. I’m with Nick here. Having a hard time viewing these riders as unworthy of riding in Europe. The point system has its flaws but these guys earned theirs by riding their bikes faster than a lot of other guys.

  13. Nobody’s used the word unproven, they are obviously good riders. Like I say above, it’s great to see new riders get their chance but my concern is that raw talent is being overlooked for older riders with points and my fear is that these guys are being used by the teams for the points and won’t be given the chances to flourish. They all have one year contracts.

  14. Fair enough. I’m a lot more sympathetic to the argument that these guys will be at risk of being used in a way that is unfair to them.

    As for the raw talent… Maybe they can go cut their teeth on the roads of Asia first. I’m only half joking about that.

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