Winning a race is joyous and often a moment of great personal and team satisfaction. But the lesser placings matter, and not just for pride but for points.
Lately the UCI points system has taken a lot of blame for problems in the sport. Out of work riders lament the dash for points by insecure teams, unsure of their place in pro cycling’s top tier, some say the points system is an incentive for doping, all whilst some outside of road cycling rate the points so highly that they want them too.
But what if all this was wrong?
Let’s take a look at how the points of a team are calculated in order to qualify for the World Tour licence. This might sound like a dry and technical subject but it’s fundamental to the sport today. And totally misunderstood.
The First Rule of Points Club
Forget the UCI rankings. The accumulation of points and the published rankings on the UCI website are not the same thing used to score a team’s position for its Pro Team licence, the automatic entry into all the World Tour races. There’s often a correlation but they’re not the same. Teams are ranked on a different measure called sporting value. Forget the UCI rankings.
Have you heard of the term “sporting value”? It’s the term used to define a team’s ranking in the internal system used by the UCI to judge whether a team is relegated or promoted from the World Tour, cycling’s first division, or Pro Continental, the second division.
Unlike most sports where the weakest teams are relegated and the strongest promoted according to obvious and visible rankings – like a league table – the UCI’s public rankings are not the basis by which teams are judged. Instead sporting value uses secret internal points system to rank the teams for promotion and demotion. This is not made public.
What is sporting value?
It’s not sporting as in fair-play, instead this is the term used to describe points won thanks to placing well in races. Only read the UCI’s giant rulebook and, trust me, there’s no explanation. Teams get their licence based on four criteria: administrative, ethical, financial and sporting. The only mention of sporting value is that it is “calculated on a the basis of a points scale approved by the UCI Professional Cycling council.” But this scale is not explained.
We know how many points the winner of the Tour or Milan-Sanremo wins for the UCI rankings but once again the points scale used for “sporting value” is not the same. It’s odd because, in reductive terms, automatic qualification for the Tour de France is often the single most important point for a sponsor and so even those putting millions into the sport can’t see the requirements in black and white.
How it works
The deadline to register a pro team for 2013 has passed, it was back on 20 October. Before this date each time submitted their application for renewal.
When calculating a team’s sporting value the points of riders under contract for 2013 are used. This means the system is forward-looking, a team that loses its star rider will not qualify thanks to past results. Instead it is the addition of points from riders it has signed for the year ahead that counts.
If you’ve got that it’s based on the team for the upcoming year, the next most important thing to grasp is that the UCI looks at best 12 riders on the team. So the points of the 12 riders with the most points count for the sporting value. The accumulation of rider points is confusingly named the “individual value” because it is the sum of the individual points.
It used to be 15 riders but now come down to 12 for 2013 onwards. The reduction is crucial because it means the team only needs to think about 12 riders and their points. So on a squad where up to 30 riders can he hired only a dozen count for their points meaning the team can have plenty of domestiques without a single point between them. Only the best 12 riders bring sporting value.
- Update: it’s been decided in 2013 that only the top-10 riders will count when it comes to ranking teams for 2014.
All UCI races qualify but the points are weighted. For example the winner of 2.HC stage race receives the same number of UCI ranking points wherever the race is. But for the team value calculations, more weight is given to races on the UCI Europe Tour compared to those on the UCI Asian Tour, to reflect the relatively difficulty. Anecdotally we’ve seen how riders like Iranians Amir Zagari or Mehdi Sohrabi were very successful in Asia but struggled when they signed contracts with European teams Ag2r and Lotto-Belisol respectively. Nevertheless the weighting was still an incentive for these teams to sign them, the ratio of their points to their salary still made hiring them attractive.
Next, another important matter. Points are won from the past two years, so for 2013 the UCI looks at the points haul from 2011 and 2012. This is important because it stops a rider’s value being too determinant on just one season’s performance, for example if they have a serious injury in one year then they can still count on the results from the previous year to help them rather than finding teams saying “sorry, you have no points, therefore no value”, this helps smooth the data.
Teams are also given bonus points for their teamwork. For example if team has topped the UCI Europe tour it wins bonus points, the same if a team does well in team classifications in stage races. This is new for 2013 because the points earned here go the team itself and do not follow with the rider. To explain, if a team wins a team prize in a race then the team itself wins points for this in the UCI sporting value, even if all the riders who won the prize sign for another team. This retrospective “collective value” is new for 2013 and these points are called “collective value.”
There are some manipulations to the data. For example the top-10 riders on the World Tour rankings see their haul modified downwards and an equal level of points is attributed to them. This is designed to stop teams going after one leader with a giant haul of points and pairing him with a lightweight roster. The same happens for the next ten riders and so on down the scale.
Special consideration can be given to a rider signed by a team who has no formal ranking points on the road but has had other success. For example a track or mountain bike world champion can be given synthetic individual value points to contribute to the team’s sporting value although the scenarios are limited, for example an omnium champion can get points but not a team pursuiter. Cyclocross star Sven Nys has just said he thinks top cross riders should be able to bring points to road teams… but this very idea is in place under the existing rules already. Only nobody knows about it.
One regular question is why teams with a reported licence for several years still have to worry about relegation every year. It’s true that teams get multi-year licences that can last for four years. But there is an annual assessment. It makes sense,a team that meets all the requirements for its first season must continue to meet these levels for the remaining four years. This is protective, for example a team could signed riders with points to qualify for the World Tour in its first year only to let them go and hire some second-rate riders but still qualify for the Tour de France, sending a poor team but still cashing on on its presence in the race.
The flip-side is that sponsor holding a four year licence in fact has a one year licence followed by an option to renew annually. This is risky, the sponsor cannot know the state of the jobs market for riders in the upcoming years and the investment needed to keep hire enough riders with points.
The exact arithmetic of the points system is top secret although last year cyclingnews got a glimpse. It’s not just UCI cageyness. Instead the idea is that if riders don’t know the points scale then they won’t race for points, unaware of the exact arithmetic they will eschew calculation and race to win.
However this good intention is having the reverse consequence. Many riders have the impression that they must have points to have a good contract when in fact only the top-12 on a team need to bring the points. If they only knew that points count for a few riders then they’d sleep better at night and race better in the day.
- Sporting value is based on the “individual value” of rider with points signed for the next season plus points from “collective value” of team results earned in the past year
- Only the top 12 riders on the team count towards the “individual value”
- Points are won in all UCI registered races but weighted towards the biggest events with the deepest fields
- An individual’s points come from the two past seasons, so for 2013 the rider’s results in 2011 and 2012 score points
- Bonus points for “collective value” are won for team rankings, whether the UCI rankings or classifications within stage races
- Special individual points can be attributed to non-road cyclists who join a pro team
Is it clear now? If the precise arithmetic remains top secret hopefully you get the idea that teams are scored using an internal points scale based on the 12 best riders they have under contract for 2013.
I think the secrecy has backfired, the sport has got to the point where many riders are scrambling for points and blaming the system when in fact they might not need to worry so much. Even Sven Nys who sits on the UCI’s athlete commission appears confused by the system. With the move to counting the points of only the best 12 riders, down from 15 before, the majority of a team’s roster can be packed with valuable but “pointless” riders.
It’s right that a four year licence is not set in stone otherwise cynical team managers could sit on a four year licence and send weak teams to races but at the same time, this annual review is awkward because a sponsor who signs up today for a four year licence cannot be sure how much it will cost to assemble a qualifying team in three years’ time, which makes durable sponsorship hard to secure.