There’s plenty up in the air right now given the proposed UCI reforms, their rejection by ASO and all the uncertainty ahead but since this is about a theory, let’s run with it. The idea is that if 18 teams or less apply for the 18 World Tour spots then all is well but the moment another team applies the equilibrium is broke with consequences for teams, tactics and wages.
There are four criteria for a team to get a world tour licence: admin, financial, ethical and sporting. The first two relate to paperwork and adequate funding, the third is nebulous and undefined but relates to being sporting and clean and the final “sporting” criteria is the subject of this post.
The first 16 teams on the UCI World Tour ranking are automatically qualified but as we’ll come to a moment, that’s something to discuss. For the other teams applying for the World Tour here is the rule:
2.15.011 b For any other team applying for UCI WorldTeam status, the sporting criterion is evaluated on the basis of the team’s five best-placed riders on the «UCI WorldTour individual ranking» for the season just completed. The two teams with the highest points totals for their five best-placed riders on the said ranking shall be considered to have satisfied the sporting criterion.
So as you see the 17th and 18th team plus any new applicants are judged on the points of their five best riders. A team can either submit its classification based on its actual rankings in the year past or submit a synthetic version based on their new signings from the upcoming season. This is a curious system because a team that suffers an exodus of talent can still qualify based on the points of their departing riders but it also gives teams on the rise a chance to submit their case based on riders they’re signing. Either way the last two teams in the table are judged on their points alongside the new teams applying for a World Tour licence.
Currently the two teams in 17th and 18th place are Dimension Data and Giant-Alpecin but as you can see in the table below, several teams have few points between them:
Astana should move up given Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru are likely to feature in the Giro and Tour this summer but the likes of Ag2r La Mondiale, IAM Cycling, Cannondale, Lampre-Merida, Lotto-Soudal, Lotto-Jumbo and Trek Factory Racing may be nervous here. All it takes is a run of results for a couple of teams and they’re suddenly at the foot of the table. Now they’re looking over their shoulders and thinking about hiring riders with points and trying to secure points.
This brings us to the tactics. Tim Wellens was a star of the “Ardennes races” thanks to his willingness to attack but as we know it brought no big results. He got a good tenth place in the Amstel but had he sat rather than trying a late breakaway then he could well have placed higher. As such Lotto-Soudal could be inclined to tell him to tame himself and settle for some points, to “take one for the team: if you like. Wellens is a handy example but this mentality can spread across other teams. Longshots that are unlikely to deliver a points pay-off become less attractive to team managers. Similarly riding conservatively in a stage race can pay dividends, when Nairo Quintana attacks there’s no point trying to match him, better for some to sit tight and see if they can crack the top-10 and bag some points.
There’s a potential impact on wages too. As the rule above makes clear only a team’s five best riders count. It used to be said that domestiques were becoming selfish as they tried to snipe points here and there for selfish reasons but this was in the days when lots of riders counted to a team’s ranking. Now only five riders count a team can have 25 other selfless servants without a point between them and it won’t matter. So having a point or two doesn’t matter but having a handful does. A team worried about their position needs to sign someone with points and chances are those facing relegation cannot sign a superstar to save the team, instead it’s spreadsheet time as they start weighing up the value of signing, say, Lieuwe Westra, Aleksejs Saramotins or Imanol Erviti – all cited as they have 250 points each, a respectable haul. Don’t focus on this trio but this kind of rider, a team’s fourth or fifth ranked rider. As a result the moments points matter for a team is the moment riders with enough points can cash in.
Theory vs practice
Of course Tinkoff lead the table right now and are set to vanish as there’s no news on a replacement sponsor so the UCI needs to find an 18th team just to fill the existing slot. Given the politicking at the moment it’s questionable whether a team would apply for a World Tour licence. ASO has said it will pull its races out of the World Tour meaning a team doesn’t need a World Tour licence to ride the Tour de France and also the UCI has said it’s got new races applying for the World Tour but has yet to say which races are involved meaning a team and its sponsors don’t know if they’ll reach valuable markets like Germany, the UK and the US in new races or if they’re compelled to go and race in Kazakhstan or Norway, or some other less prosperous market or a small nation with a proportionally small market. Yet all it takes is a Bahraini billionaire to give the go-ahead, a Danish tycoon to get on board with Bjarne Riis and so on and the equilibrium is broken and there’s a scramble for points.
This reality allows us to reverse all of the above. If points are not going to matter this year then perhaps Wellens and Co. are allowed to attack, that riders with a decent haul of points but little star factor are valued like this rather becoming prized signings for hidden reasons and teams can sign the riders they want as opposed to chasing the riders they need. This reached its nadir in years past when Lotto and Ag2r started signing Iranian riders for their points and sadly this was not a bet on fresh talent but desperation for points and the teams went shopping around the Asia tour.
Things are calm now. It was not long ago that UCI points were a very precious currency but these days they’ve been devalued because of the lack of competition for a place in the World Tour. In recent years the UCI’s made overtures to smaller teams to join the top flight in order to fill the empty spot. Right now the looming exit of the Tinkoff team and the UCI vs. ASO spat means there’s no panic among teams nor a rush of sponsors into the sport. But all it takes is one more ambitious team and suddenly a tipping point is reached, the plans of 18 teams are altered because of the arrival of one more and if this scenario isn’t rushing towards us, it’s still worth exploring the theoretical consequences: wages can rise for some and fall for others, team tactics get safer and managers make some signings based on points rather than promise. Put this way it sounds negative, defensive and unwanted but since this scenario is only theoretical for now does it mean we’re seeing the opposite with risk-taking tactics and recruitment for all the right reasons?