The Vuelta, The First Race of the 2013 Season?

Cycling goes big on history. Champions from the past are venerated and today’s races draw prestige from their past and not their past list. At the same time it’s a sport that’s always looking to the future. Make a mistake today and there’s always tomorrow and look at the Vuelta where several riders are there to train for the World Championships, a three week grand tour is a mere training camp for future races.

But there’s a hidden side to this. Namely we have riders wearing the jersey of one team but riding for another. This happens because they have already signed for a new team for 2013 but are racing the Vuelta for their existing team. For now it’s not changed the results but it is easy to envisage a range of scenarios where the results are distorted.

Take today’s climb to Valdezcaray. At one point we had a move with Dani Navarro and Alberto Contador of Saxo Bank-Tinkoff, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Nicolas Roche of Ag2r-La Mondiale. But Navarro is going to Cofidis and Roche is joining Saxo. Look to the future and Alberto Contador’s team mate was Roche, not Navarro. Indeed whilst Navarro has a pedigree of total loyalty to Contador, things have changed since he’s going to Cofidis and the French squad will welcome points. We cannot say Navarro will ride for himself but we can see the incentive.

Is this speculation? Not necessarily, riders are acutely aware of things. Take the Olympic road race where one of the first riders to chase the breakaway was Vasil Kiriyenka. Why was the Belarus rider working? In turns out he’s joining Team Sky for next year so he was already working for Sky/Britain back then.

Things get even more complicated when we consider the vital importance of UCI points. To recap there are 18 teams in with “Pro Team” status and automatic and their haul of points, known as “team value”, is a primary determinant of whether they stay in the top flight. The haul is calculated every October on the basis of the team for the following year. In other words in October 2012 the UCI will work out the team value based on a squad’s signings for 2013.

Let’s take the case of Contador and Roche in the breakaway again. Behind in the team car Bjarne Riis has one hand on the wheel and the other… on a spreadsheet. Well perhaps it’s in his mind but the Danish team is devoting a lot of thought to getting the points needed to stay Pro Team. So if Contador and Roche are away in a move, who does Riis want to win the stage? Roche. Why? Because Contador is returning from a doping ban and a current UCI rule says those returning from a ban cannot score any ranking points. So Saxo’s can only score points via Roche doing well. Ultimately Alberto Contador and his Saxo Bank team want to win the race but don’t be surprised to see Roche given some help along the way.

Does it matter?
Yes and no. Purists might not like this and I tend to agree but I can see the incentives at work. Therefore the main thing is to be aware of the conflict of interest so you’re not left scratching your head when things look strange on TV. It’s not unique to the Vuelta but the way the Spanish tour comes late in the season means it is the most obvious example.

Can it be prevented?
We cannot stop the riders, instead the system has to change so the incentives are altered. Roche himself is critical of the points system.

One example from the outside world is “administrative leave”, sometimes called “garden leave”. When an employee announces they are leaving for a rival company they must still see out their contract but are told to stay away from their current workplace because they are already deemed to be in the rival camp. This would be disadvantageous in cycling though as suspending a rider until the end of the season means they miss out on races, results and conditioning so everyone loses. Indeed this is what some teams have been doing and it’s regrettable.

Another solution would be to revisit the timing of contracts so riders are not signed to new teams for the following year during August. But this still doesn’t fix things. Team’s aren’t supposed to sign riders before August but they do, as the Kiriyenka case suggests. Therefore perhaps the only remedy is to look at the points system again so that there’s a balance of interests. Easier said than done.

As a sport cycling is often nostalgic. But the riders and teams are futurologists, always with an eye on the next race and the upcoming season. In a way the 2013 season has already started in a small way with riders signing for new teams and they get new incentives. As such the Vuelta is a last chance for some riders to save their 2012 season but also a chance for others to start work, implicitly, on the next season.

It seems hard to remedy this. At least we can be aware of it.

37 thoughts on “The Vuelta, The First Race of the 2013 Season?”

  1. Once again, you’ve enabled me to sound clever infront of my friends when we are watching cycling 🙂 On a more serious note, thank you for again pointing out a vital part of racing that one must keep in the back if his head when watching the pedaleurs batteling it out.

  2. Is another option to go to the football type scenario where players move between clubs during the season? I realise pre-contracts are becoming the norm in football too but would you drop a player for games, although there goals would obviously only count for you!!

    A transfer window after each grand tour (like in fantasy cycling leagues too I suppose) would mean fresh blood for teams and Roche could be helping Bertie, and be paid by Bank-Bank as opposed to Ag2r for the honour.

    If this is the first race of 2013, then it promises to be a good season from what I’ve seen so far!!

  3. Is it not possible that during the Olympic road race Kiriyenka was working for his team mate Hutarovich; who had a chance of winning a medal if it went to a sprint?

  4. Aah the grand old points sytems debate. We, the readers of Inrng, have come up with umpteen working formulas to improve the system right here in the comments section but UCI for some odd reason is still defending it’s past activities/rules (huh!). The administrative improvement of our sport will only begin when Pat McQuaid leaves UCI.

    • Getting rid of the “Mad Hatter” won’t do much if the crooks that pull the strings just install another puppet, even if he’s a better one. The entire UCI needs to be destroyed and rebuilt if pro cycling is to have any credibility. Don’t forget the UCI bigshot facing the biggest losses in the BigTex caper is the one who pulls the strings connected to the current president. The one who claimed Tex “never, never, over doped.” or something like that. Better minds than mine have already solved the points issues, all we need now if for a new and fair formula to be implemented.

    • Larry T is right on this.
      It’s the entire boy’s club that controls the thing that’s to blame. Don’t for a minute think that one guy has all the power.
      They’re in it to protect theirs, that’s all.

      • True. The points system is not the creation of the President.

        But introducing a system without consulting the teams nor considering the likely scenarios and outcomes? Well, perhaps a change at the top might lead to changes elsewhere.

  5. Surely the simple solution to this would be that if a rider moves, he leaves his points behind? The team who paid him in 2012 gets the points, and in 2013 he starts with a clean slate, to score points for his new team. Taking the points with you makes no sense to me.

    • Absolutely! Cycing is a team sport. Teams win races, therefore, the points must stay with the team. Simple solution to all the problems plus it protects the professional domestiques who play such a big part in every win but never earn a point thereby putting their jobs in jeopardy. Everyone knows who the stars of the sport are so they’ll have no problem selling themselves to new teams, with or without points.

      • Works in the football codes. Upsides
        1) Team knows it can stay in the big league for next year, stability for sponsors, business model etc. 2) Riders start with a clean slate in new squad, again no differnet to what happens in football codes. Recruited on potential and what can bring to squad in postive way, not negative eg Vino riding anothe year just to hold the license, it keeps someone else out for the wrong reason.
        3) Teams should be penalised 150% of a riders points of they drug test positive whilst under contract eg in Contadors case, Astana as they were his employer then not Saxo. Get rid of this “we did not know what he was doing BS” Teams need to take some responisibilty.
        4) Convicted rider can accrue no points for 2 years, a negative incentive to a rider to dope if no one will touch them afterwrds.
        5) Revamp the drugs penalties, at present no incentive for anyone to help if caught or approached to dope, they get belted with a hammer. Black & white in a world of grey creates too many wealthy lawyers. Look at the idiotic arguiments they raised in Contadors case (both sides) ditto this junk in Texas.

        Time to clean out & revamp the UCI. Breakaway league & ASO?

  6. The best and only sensible remedy is to change the way the points work. The simplest way would be team points as well as individual. The tricky part is determining how many of the points are retained or gained by a team when riders transfer in or out. I would suggest that the team a rider leaves would retain say 50% of the team points gained by that one rider. There needs to be some recognition that the team is ‘weakened’ by the loss of the rider while not unduly compromising them. That being said I’d be in favour of the two lowest scoring teams being relegated and the two best scoring pro continental teams being promoted to the world tour. I know it’s not that simple due to budgets etc. but it would encourage aggressive riding to make it into the world tour maybe.

  7. Good post – while the rule is slightly non-sensical in terms of team play, I have to admit to having an affection for it in a wider context. Cycling is the sport of grey. Try explaining to the lehman why Cancellara was the best at this but Wiggins is the best at this whilst Gilbert is the best at this whilst Voeckler is the best at…..well you get my point. It rewards the anorak, the purveyor of grey. And this rule seems to add to this rather than detract from it. The kiriyenka (& Eisel etc) point is a great example of how this adds an extra layer to the race – particularly pertinent when we remember how bad that bloody olympic coverage was – on a side note, I was in Richmond park reading your twitter & i’m pretty sure I was more informed than the television nation which could sawn an essay in itself.

    And on a slightly less abstract level it avoids situations introduced by Coppi whereby a teammate is terrified of taking the glory yest they draw the wrath of dear leader. It’s like open season being declared post July – & frankly I love it.

  8. Just have to grin at the craziness, sit back and enjoy the show. Thinking of it as an extra cerebral exercise in following a race. You now need to keep track of the transfer market to fully appreciate the race dynamics. 🙂

  9. Keep in mind, too, that in some perverted way this is the same rationale that accounts for Jakob Fuglsang not racing the Vuelta, since his points don’t benefit his current team. Not that pro cycling needs to be any more complicated than it already is, but it seems to me that some kind of formula that recognizes both the work of domestiques and allows teams to score points for departing riders is in order. Perhaps points going to the team, but new signings forming some kind of a metric to compare against new teams pressing for a Pro Tour license…

    • I don’t know why Fuglsang prematurely announced his desire to leave RSN, but in effect, he shot himself in the foot for doing it, or did he? Doesn’t he have any advisors on his side? He knew the rules and he knows Bruynee’s very competitive and spiteful and vindictive and … He could have seen recent history, case in point Thor’s bungled exit strategy from Garmin, that he had a great possibility of being prohibited from racing if he had told his employers that he wanted to leave the company.

      OR maybe he DIDN’T want to race because he hates RSN, which is why he did what he did. He got pissed, and opened his mouth. Look, he gets paid by RSN, regardless, and he can have an easy season. He’s using the public relations machine to his advantage…lets see if he gets any results next year…

  10. Halus, I am of the many who reads but raely comments in part due lack of insights (mad props to inrng for enlightening me a little everyday!)
    I am Danish yet based in a bikecoop in Madrid – due to the socio-economic context mixed with a ethical-genetical whatever I cannot make myself support a team of an investment bank nor many other teams – yet I dont think it is fair – that theese teams simply do not get any point benefits from riders which wages they are paying during the season – I cerntainly do not prentend to know the answer – but I agree that a certain percentage of rider points should go to the team – maybe with a percential decline during say 3 years time – which as I understand it would benefit teams(and the moneymen behind) who are in it for a longer term –
    I would like to see the workhorses better rewarded, the ones who races thousands upon thousands of kms during the season could maybe be rewarded with points for particiting and finishing races to a a bigger extend.
    The UCI topboys may appears to be clowns, but the task of creating a truly fair points system in a winner takes it all sport is complicated…

  11. Points follow the rider and not the team. Therefore, if the team, e.g. AG2R wants to really keep Roche and really need the points to keep their Pro license, then they will pay him more. It just so happens that in this example, SAXO really needs the points to keep their license. So, they most likely paid him more than AG2R. This move benefits a team like SAXO and a rider like Roche.

    I want riders to get paid more, because I admire them and respect them. This rule was probably made for their benefit, because it raises their value. Period. This is good for riders like Roche. If the team fosters their point earners, pay them well, treat them well, then they will stay and the team will get the points! I believe that’s the rationale for this rule. Riders are not disposable and will do what’s in their best interest. PERIOD. HOWEVER…

    Yes, cycling is a team sport and you need the domestiques to win, but they haven’t found a way to measure their values, i.e. monetize their worth. Thus, you have a screwy system of highly rewarding the individual without acknowledging the domestiques. That’s where the UCI needs to fix this point system; however, I believe they knew the consequences of this system and are content on leaving it alone, because not enough people who matter to them are speaking out.

    • “If the team fosters their point earners, pay them well, treat them well, then they will stay and the team will get the points” says nothing about WINNING races. It assumes the guys will do anything as long as they get paid well. Champions are made of sterner stuff – they want to WIN and be on a team that makes this possible no matter how big a checkbook they have. How many riders have left well-funded teams for less pay to improve their chances to win? Cavendish won’t be leaving SKY for more euros, but for more chances to WIN. Some sort of split on the points makes the most sense but like most things, the devil is in the details. But it’s pretty clear the current setup needs a rethink.

    • No it doesn’t. I’m a domestique. Big diesel engine and I’m at the front for the first 120km day in day out in a grand tour in the service of my team. Monetise my value? Recognise that my labour contributes to team success, points accrue to the team, not the individual. Simple 🙂 I am now of value as a DS knows they need some big engines and that I contribute value. An example could be HTC, Cav got a lot of points, but everyone knows that the train was and is integral to this, take away the train and we drop from 6 + stages at the TDF to 3, what’s that if not a visible value to the other riders?

      The weirdness in this is that the points system seems to take the schizophrenia inherent in the sport and make it concrete. This ‘schizophrenia’ is why the sport is beguiling, and confusing to novices. Individuals win, and are celebrated as winners, but need a team, and you can win a tour without having to win a stage (a 4 day pro golf tournament is a good analogy for that one). By only giving points to individuals the whole team structure of the sport is confused and belittled, not clarified, and it leads to questionable tactics. I’ve said it here before, this is not trivial, all it will take is one betting scandal and it will hit the fan. If I bet on a race I need to assume that teams work for themselves, outside of minor on the road allegiances (work together to hunt down a break, etc). If this is not the case then there will be problems.

      • Thank you Miles, you just illustrated my point of view. There is no metric to determine a domestique’s value. We all agree they are crucial for wins in the pro peloton.

        Didn’t the rider’s union get some say into the whole points scheme? If not, then they should, because without their input and cooperation, the UCI is going DOWN in a slow death, taking cycling down as we know it. And I for one, do not want that to happen. When the riders are successful, the fans get to reap the rewards as well.

      • Whilst I fully agree that there should be a metric to reward domestique work your logic seems slightly flawed;

        An example could be HTC, Cav got a lot of points, but everyone knows that the train was and is integral to this, take away the train and we drop from 6 + stages at the TDF to 3, what’s that if not a visible value to the other riders

        Then (arguably) if you take Cav away you go from 6+ stages to zero.

        • true, but surely that suggests Cav should be worth more than the lead out, not the situation as it stands where Cav gets a heap of points and 2nd or 3rd wheel in the train gets nothing. The argument is not that they all get the same, but that in using the HTC example it is not that difficult to see that (to be crude) the train is the difference between 3 and at least 6 stages. So those riders ought to be valued in any points system but currently they are not. Personally I think points should go to a team, the riders get value from wins, points just double dips the whole thing (I get big contract because I win, AND I get lots of points because I win, so know I’m worth even more).

  12. One obvious answer is to split the points: 50% to the rider (to transfer with him if he moves); 50% to the team 9which they keep regardless of their roster the following year(. That recognises the fact that cycling is at least partly a team sport – where would Cavendish be without his team?

    This has several potentially beneficial consequences:

    – There is no incentive on a team in the late summer / autumn to leave an in-form, but exiting, rider out of races (such as Fulsgang at Radioshack) – better for a team to get the publicity and half the points, than take an out-of-form rider and get nothing anyway.
    – New teams can’t buy their way in to the top flight in their first season (because they will start with the 50% of rider points they got from signings, but will start with no team points), which protects longer established teams – but it only protects the longer established for a season, which seems a fair balance.
    – If a rider retires, their 50% share of the points retires with them – but the team still gets the benefit the following season for teh work they did to support that rider.
    – If a rider is suspended for doping, not only does the rider lose out, but also the team loses the 50% of points the rider brings to them. So there is more incentive on teams to prevent doping as they will be directly punished by losing points, even if the doping is discovered a year later and the rider has moved.

    Where teams merge (such as Cervelo / Garmin), I’d envisage that the “team” part of their points would be the average of the team points of the two teams going into the merger (or maybe a weighted average if tehe teams could demonstrate it wasn’t an equal merger). You could fairly easily tweak teh system to get teh outcome you wanted, but the key feature is to ensure that teams (as entities) get a reward in points over and above those of the riders they have under contract that year.


  13. INRNG I love your blog and your work, but on this issue maybe enough has been said? We know the UCI doesn’t want to change the system and the teams are not strong enough together to make a real statement. That’s why we are in this black hole. Not only with this point system, but also in the fall when we go to china.

    • I understand. If the system needs a fix this was more to point out the tactics on the road so when we watch the Vuelta, we get a better idea of what is going on, that it helps to be aware of the points systems and transfers.

      • Dont agree with Rooie that enough has been said therefore its not worth discussing again. The system is totally flawed and example that just serves to highlight this, and of riders speaking out against it, are worth using to drive debate including alternatives. Inner Ring is followed with interest by a lot of people involved in procycling as well as fans, and personally I think its good to keep this debate fresh.

  14. Forget the points, secret bids for the ProTour team places then wire the funds to me for “investment” in my globalisation (holiday villa somewhere warmer and drier than northern England)

  15. Interesting piece, but while you may think that riders are riding for their new teams, this isn’t always the case. Kiriyenka could just as easily have been riding for Huntarovich and Roche chasing a stage win – which seemed likely on the final climb the way the time gap was falling. This is also backed up by the fact that Roche continued up the road after Contador had been absorbed by the chasing pack.

    I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to question the professionalism of riders and their loyalty to their team based on one particular version of events, similar to some who conclude that certain riders are more ‘prepared’ at races because it fits their narrative of the sport. Give the riders the benefit of the doubt unless proven otherwise.

  16. For the non-initiated, can someone help me understand a few points here?
    – According to this post, there are 18 teams with ‘pro’ status. If a team has a bad year overall and is relegated, are they automatically replaced with an up-and-coming team, as in Euro football? Or could next year’s roster only have 17 teams?
    – There are two races in China which close out the calendar for UCI in October. Would it be possible for a team to recruit a very successful rider prior to these last two races, and as a result acquire all of that riders points for 2012 as well? If so, this model is insane.
    Thanks in advance for the clarification.

    • It’s 18 teams. You can create a new team and sign enough riders to make the top-18 (and bump an existing team out) but there’s no new squad for 2013 so relegation for any team happens if they are lowly ranked compared to a team in the UCI Pro Continental level, the second team.

      And when a team signs a rider, they get their ranking points from the last two seasons. The UCI will calculate the “team value” in October based on the team’s roster for 2013.

  17. I think the 2nd poster has the right idea, mainly because its so simple and easy for novices to grasp. A football style system would really bring back the ‘team’ element to cycling, teams collect points not individuals. This would allow riders to negotiate their own worth according to what they feel they bring and how they complement a team, rather than an allstar non cohesiveness team like BMC with loads of points.
    I dont know why this particular points system was introduced but I wonder if its to allow big money sponsors to enter cycling at the top level more easily? All you need to do is buy up the best riders and your points total qualifies you for a TDF invite.

  18. It’s funny. Because Nico Roche is so naive in his attacks, I assumed that the future-team angle wasn’t a factor. It would have been interesting to see what happened if Froome and Contador stuck with it. As for Nico, it turned into a nice move for him. He made some good time. I really do wish him well, but he needs to stop doing the silly things like contesting for stage victories and wasting valuable energy on podiums with cyclists who are clearly better sprinters, or focus on stage wins entirely, because I think he could pick up 2 or 3 a year.

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