Ranking the Rankings

Who is the best rider in the UCI World Tour? Peter Sagan, Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde… it’s Simon Yates according to the UCI rankings. The point here is any ranking is subjective but it’s especially so in cycling where, unlike other sports, the notion of a league table or a points-based ranking is almost redundant. It might even be having an effect on the racing.

First, congratulations to Simon Yates for a good year, to say the rankings aren’t much use isn’t to knock the rider who has topped them, he didn’t do it by accident. It’s just the rankings aren’t a big deal.

In fact the rankings don’t serve a purpose at the moment. They’re not used for qualification – once upon a time the best 18 teams, in turn based on rider rankings, would be picked for the Tour de France. But with 18 squads in the World Tour getting automatic invites the team’s status doesn’t matter, ditto for wildcard invitations where their points haul doesn’t matter. Similarly the World Tour teams aren’t worried about relegation either for now so the points haul of their riders doesn’t count either.

Rider points have been a virtual currency too where some have been hired because of their points haul, to sit high on the rankings was valuable. To some extent it still is but less directly, gone are the days when teams are hiring exotic riders because they’ve got some points. As such a rider’s wage correlates with their points rather than being the direct cause.

The table above is a cropped version of the World Tour points on offer for . Is a win in the Tour Down Under equivalent to the Tour de Suisse? Is the Tour of Flanders the same as the GP de Québec? Yes says the UCI and you may think otherwise, which is fine and underlines how the rankings can reflect the decisions of a committee as much as the performances of the riders, a story of where where the points were allocated as much as who won them.

To outsiders this lack of an authoritative, compelling ranking may be baffling. “Who is the best” is an obvious question but road cycling has many diverse events and consequently different contenders, the peloton has some 50kg athletes and others at 80kg and they all have their roles and opportunities. There’s been talk about having “the best riders in the best races” but there are many climbers unsuited to the cobbled classics and many classics specialists and sprinters who just hope to make the time cut during a mountain stage. This is a good thing, it’s a sign of variety and surely part of the sport’s attraction, that the season actually has several mini-seasons within it like the classics in the spring and the mountainous stage races in the summer as races tackle such different terrain. If all the riders and racers were comparable the sport would be a lot more boring.

Better still it’s the events that have meaning, not the rankings. A rider wants to win a race for the sake of it rather than aiming for the points as a means to something else, similarly with points mattering less these days for teams we don’t see tactics of trying to deliver a rider to, say, eighth place, just to get points.

When was the last time you checked the UCI rankings? They’ve never been a big deal for the general public and they’re primarily an exercise in arithmetic, a committee’s vision of how to compare different riders and races. Still, it wasn’t long ago they counted for a lot, whether bringing qualification to the Tour de France and other major races, or, more recently, they mattered for the survival of teams and in turn this had an impact on team tactics. With the rankings being less important to the structure of the sport at the moment it could also mean better racing.

57 thoughts on “Ranking the Rankings”

  1. Thanks for the sharp article as ever. Interesting question, would Lotto Jumbo & Michellton Scott thrived the way they had this season if ranking still mattered?

    Would the former animate the TDF the way they had? Would Simon Yates race differently?

    • Indeed, if Lotto-Jumbo were hunting points the likes of Kruijswijk wouldn’t have gone on his long raid on the stage to Alpe d’Huez during the Tour, but could have played it safe. Maybe it does have something to do with points being less important?

  2. Ranking seems to work best in sports that have the form of games played on standardised venues. The rules of the game often lend themselves to objective or quantifed performance ranking. In cycling this is probably only possible on the track but even there defining a year’s best is tricky as there are different disciplines which are not directly comparable.

      • Its sort of like trying to rank athletics. A 100 m runner against a marathoner. Over the course of a season Diamond League where a sprinter has 6-7 events event against the Boston marathon. Who is the better? I’m not aware if they do rank them
        Good fodder for the “off season” discussions and I would guess most teams look over race categories e.g. classics or tours to fill their rosters to achieve whatever goals they are targeting, another example how Mitchelton Scott have moved focus from single day to grand tour and team structure has changed.
        That said how often does a break out or super year lead to a large contract then relatively poorer results the following, almost too many variables at present for Money Ball to model (?)

      • Even in Tennis, Wimbleden and French Open stands out due to different “terrain”. There are the so called grass court (to a less extent) and clay court specialists.

        The difference is that tennis player can be competitive in all Grand Slams whilst cyclist can’t in all Grand Tours.

      • Yes, he was a 37 year old German rider with Team NetApp who’s ridden for many modest pro teams over the years but strangely sat 11th in the UCI Europe Tour rankings with 332 points in late 2012 and I think there was a bidding war between Lampre and Euskaltel for his services, ie points as they feared relegation. Euskaltel won the race to sign him – of all teams given their strong regional identity – but he was DNF in most races subsequently and their team folded at the end of the year anyway.

  3. Rankings do work in some other non-standardized sports. Cross-country skiing for example has a few different rankings/calendars: a sprint ranking/calendar; one for distance events; and an overall ranking. There are however important benefits to having a higher rank: race seeding; financial benefits if ranked in the top 30, etc. I think cycling would benefit from a differentiated ranking like. What rider wouldn’t want the title of best sprinter of the year and what team wouldn’t profit from the title as best team of the year.

  4. I would like to see more emphasis on team ranking, a relegation/promotion system seems obvious to me, but that is seeing cycling from a very eurocentric point of view.

    • Relegation/promotion systems work if teams are gagging to get into the top tier. In cycling, they’re not.
      In football a promotion means a lot of cash coming in as they get a cut of TV revenue from playing the top sides. Even getting a cut of the gate and TV from playing in the FA cup against a Premier League team is huge.
      In cycling, cash goes out as costs soar with the demands of compulsory race appearances and at least two complete squads/support racing at once.
      It’s a big move to go to World Tour.

      • I get your point and I certainly do not have the answer, yet I bellieve that a greather spectacle could be created with a different ranking approach (team ranking) – an example is the copa de italia, where the highest ranking team earns a giro invite. – I think current model is too static, maybe a rolling top15(top15 a a certian date earns invites to andernnes etc.) – like tennis or golf.

        • I was thinking of a team-based ranking too, and then I recalled the criticism that Movistar have received for what was seen as conservative tactics in their Tour de France performances in order to have secured the top team prize.
          The counter point to this, though, could be Quick Step’s approach; they have most certainly not been risk-averse and yet still enjoyed both individual and collective success.
          Perhaps it comes down to the mind-set of the teams?

    • True. Matched by a desire of riders (and sponsors, presumably) to win it. I’d say it sits only below the monuments nowadays and is at least the equal of any of the remaining one day races in terms of prestige.

  5. When you sit down and have a look at the results and see Simon Yates’ consistency and longevity through 2018, he’s a very worthy winner of this. From Paris-Nice right through to the Vuelta.
    2017’s winner was Greg Van Avermaet, and that was most deserved too.
    I can understand the difficulty in ranking a race like the Ronde alongside Tour Down Under but a race is a race, the same analogy as Fulham beating Manchester Utd at Old Trafford; it’s still only three points.

    • As a Froome fan I couldn’t disagree more. When is GVA going to win a grand tour, let alone two in a row? A points system which disproportionately favours one day winners over three week winners is stupid.

      • And when is Froome going to win Omloop, Paris-Roubaix, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, and finish 2nd in Flanders, Strade and Quebec, not to mention fine results in Kuurne, Gold Race, LBL, San Sebastian, Montreal and the Worlds in the same year?

        One day winners aren’t favoured over GT-winners. Winning a one-day race is more difficult. The record for most TdF wins is 7 (discounting Armstrong 5) achieved by 1 rider (4), Giro is 5 (3), Vuelta is 4 (1). For Flanders it is 3 (6). For Roubaix it is 4 (2). LBL is 5 (1). MSR is 7 (1) and Lombardia is 5 (1). Winning the Tour is easier (apparently), but gives twice as many points (plus stagepoints you obviosly get as GC-winner).

        • Never, there’s no dishonesty from anyone about that. But when you say winning a one day race is HARDER I’m afraid to have to disagree. Winning a grand tour is harder… and always will be. How many random one day winners are there and how many random grand tour winners are there? You can’t luck into a grand tour win because you must beat all comers over three weeks. But you certainly can luck into a one day win. Sean Kelly, the guy who inspired my interest in cycling, won 9 monuments. He only won one grand tour.

          Why should a guy winning some one day race, some of which aren’t even that prestigious, get half the points you get for winning the Tour de France and more than half you get for winning the Giro or Vuelta? That’s barking mad.

          • RonDe, you’ve done a good job all year of explaining how the list of Grand Tour contenders really should be boiled down to 3 or 4 “real” contenders.
            So you can’t contradict that sentiment now?

            Winning a Grand Tour may be physically harder but is the list of contenders much shorter than those in the top one day races?
            One could argue it is and, by that reasoning, the odds of say Froome winning the Giro are shorter than eg Sagan wining the Tour of Flanders.
            One slip-up in the one day races and, chances are, it’s good night Vienna.

          • “Why should a guy winning some one day race, some of which aren’t even that prestigious, get half the points you get for winning the Tour de France and more than half you get for winning the Giro or Vuelta? That’s barking mad.”

            It’s just to annoy people like you.

          • “Winning a grand tour is harder… and always will be. How many random one day winners are there and how many random grand tour winners are there? ”

            That of course is part of the reason it’s so hard to be a points leader for the season as a one-day specialist. As mentioned by others, Froome is only really competing with a few other people, a couple of whom are on his own team and so have to defer to him if he’s on his game. In any given race, the likes of GVA or Sagan are competing with a dozen other sprint and one-day specialists, along with several dozen talented riders who have long odds but can win with a bit of luck.

  6. “Cycling is a team sport where an individual gets the credit”. Well done to Simon Yates for being a worthy winner for his consistency and longevity, but if the rankings are to truly reflect the sport, they should be for teams rather than individuals, because without the team, the rider (unless he’s called Peter Sagan) doesn’t succeed.

    • You certainly cant argue with the quality of the winners. I don’t think it would work quite as well now as nobody races the Grand Tours and the classics to win anymore in the way that Kelly, Roche, Lemond, Moser and their predecessors did.
      Also, as an aside, is it worth considering the 80’s as the high water mark of cycling? You had Kelly, Lemond, Moser and Hinault – all considered all time greats – competing against each other with a supporting cast of Roche, Fignon, Saronni, Van der Poel, Argentin and others. All trying to win everything, with no specialism as we would understand it today, though they each had events they were better at.

      • But isn’t this one of those “chicken or egg?” questions? Did those guys race those races because of the end-of-year prize vs now they don’t when there’s nothing on offer as a season-long goal? It’s hard to say and there’s no way to know I guess.
        I’d certainly call the ’80’s one of the “golden ages of cycling” that I like to recall, but since that’s when I got interested in the whole thing, I’m open to charges of bias. The Coppi vs Bartali era or Moser vs Saronni or Merckx vs Everyone Else certainly belong in the category as well, but of course that’s based on historical accounts for me rather than really paying attention or knowing anything during those periods. But it’s hard to think the current era will ever be considered in this way, unless perhaps you are British?

        • No sane individual would regard you as biased Larry.

          A word on the 80s versus now though. I, too, found cycling in the 80s and Richard gives all the reasons why that is a golden era. In comparison, today is not and one reason is that the best riders in terms of grand tours often duck and feint to pick some races over others. Since most of us are not old enough we probably cannot know if the greats of the past tried to avoid their rivals but today they often do. Who, in 2019, will be giving the Tour a miss because, it is imagined, Sky hold all the aces?

          We need more riders prepared to back themselves rather than pragmatically carving out a palmares based on avoiding their top rivals.

          • HA! I guess the old-farts can sometimes agree on something, eh? I only know the pre-1980’s stuff via history books and such, but it certainly does not seem that the big stars went round trying to win races their rivals weren’t contesting just to improve their palmares. If you want to be regarded as a true champion and worthy winner you should want to beat the best at their best, otherwise you’re not very sporting.

        • Larry, as Kelly said in the cyclingtips piece, the Super Prestige was worth a lot of money, comparatively for a cyclist. Nowadays, it would be hard to see how any similar prize could be. And
          thus few if any genuine GT contenders would be willing to sacrifice their grand tour prospects in order to participate in, and be competitive in, one day races. To do so, they’d have to alter their emaciated body shape. Sadly, it’s all about the TdF.

    • They ruined it by including far too many races of lesser importance and then awarding points for very minor placings.
      I don’t think there’s any going back now: even if you used exactly the same system, as Richard S says, too few riders try to win all kinds of races.

  7. The five points categories are skewed by the UCI’s desire to globalise the sport. Why else would the two Québec races and Santos be equivalent to Roubaix and La Ronde, and ahead of La Flèche, and why on earth are Guangxi et Turkey deemed equivalent to Strade Bianchi? To confirm my doubts on the categories one has only to look at the relative field strengths for the races I cite.

    As for Yates, his points come almost entirely from classic and established races with only Pologne being second tier single week WT.

  8. The thing that really ruins the rankings is the want to have every race under the sun count towards them. For viable rankings you need there to be few enough races so that the riders attempting to win the championship/series/whatever can do all of them. It would also help if they are the same type of race. Simon Yates and Peter Sagan could conceivably finish a close 1st and 2nd under the current system without ever racing against each other, or even ever competing in the same type of event. You could also get some guy appear in 3rd who has racked up places and stage wins in fairly uneventful 1 week stages and never been a factor in what anybody would consider a big race. To me a points championship could work for 1 day races. No more than 10 races though so that guys like Sagan, Van Avarmaet, Gilbert, Terpstra, Naesen etc can do all of them and then the overall series winner at least has some sort of reflection on what happened across the season of those races. The races to include would be the obvious major 1 day races starting with Milan-Sanremo (or Strade Bianche) and finishing with Lombardia. But that would mean all or nearly all (depending on how generous you want to be to Canada) of the races being established European races. None of the races would be new heavily funded races in ’emerging markets’, so obviously it couldn’t happen. Too many brown envelopes would be heading to UCI officials to get certain events included. Also in my POV Grand Tours work best as stand alone ‘championships’ in their own right, each with their own assortment of one week warm up races. An overall season long championship of these races can never work because nobody does them all, and not everyone races any more than 1 or 2 of them to actually win.

  9. I agree with Larry: the points system sucks nuts. It has long annoyed me how a rider with a consistent classics season ends up being regarded as a “better” rider than a guy who wins a grand tour. It has equally annoyed me that if you win the Giro or Vuelta that is not rewarded in points the same as winning the Tour. Often the Tour is the easier of the three races and, if anything, should get less points than the other two.

    The problem here is that the points system is run across all races as if you could commensurate every kind of race and rider in one system. This is dumb as a rock. What is needed is that riders be classified according to their type or specialty so that we are then comparing like with like. GVA or Sagan are not going head to head with Dumoulin or Froome. Simon Yates is not doing the same races for the same reason as Peter Sagan. Until any points system recognises this its essential pointless.

    • Have you looked back at previous ranking winners?
      09 – Contador (Valverde 2nd, S.Sanchez 3rd), so the Tour winner won overall, Vuelta winner 2nd.
      10 – This season gets real messed up rankings wise. Valverde had most of his points removed, Contadors Tour win was discounted.
      11 – Gilbert (Evans 2nd, Rodriguez 3rd), Gilbert won all three Ardennes races was on the podium in MSR won San Sebastian and Quebec and podiumed Montreal for one of the best overall seasons ever! Evans won the Tour was 2nd
      12 – Rodriguez (Wiggins 2nd, Boonen 3rd), Rodriguez got podiums in Giro + Vuelta to win, Tour winner in 2nd ahead of Boonen’s clean sweep of Flanders classics
      13 – Rodriguez (Froome 2nd, Valverde 3rd) You’re probably seeing a pattern by now where a season long GC contender is winning with the Tour winner just behind
      14 – Valverde (Contador 2nd, Gerrans 3rd) Hey it’s another GT podium finisher on top and GT winner just behind!
      15 – Valverde (Rodriguez 2nd, Quintana 3rd) GT podium finisher yet again on top and in 2nd and a GT winner in 3rd. No classics men in sight!
      16 – Sagan ( Quintana 2nd, Froome 3rd) To be fair this supports your view point, but at least GT winners were 2nd and 3rd
      17 – GVA (Froome 2nd, Dumoulin 3rd) again supportive of your argument
      18 – Yates (Sagan 2nd, Valverde 3rd) GT rider back ontop!

      So that’s three times in ten years a classics man finished ahead of a GT contender, and i’m being hard on Gilbert’s insane 2011 season which was one of the best of the modern era!
      Quote – “annoyed me how a rider with a consistent classics season ends up being regarded as a “better” rider than a guy who wins a grand tour” turns out 70% of the time the Grand Tour riders come out on top

      • Outside of Gilbert’s mega season it should have been nine out of ten. Froome wins two grand tours in a row but isn’t the rider of the season? Only because races like Ghent-Wevelgem, essentially a ride round in the rain with a sprint finish, gets 500 points, half of that for the most prestigious race of the year, one day’s effort as against 21 days’ effort! Barmy.

        • It’s too funny how every second post by you -others would argue every – demonstrates how how don’t have a re clue of cycling and all you’re her for is convincing people that your beloved Kenyan is the best rider in history and all times. Only facts don’t back that up, he will always be a one-trick pony, a good trick indeed, but still only one. Where others have broader talents and proof that year after year, century after century. So if the official rankings don’t show one trick Chris in position 1, the ranking system must suck.
          Is ther a ranking system for most persistent one trick argumentation, you would be the consecutive winner for years now.

  10. The less the points matter, the better. That’s what concerns me about the planned ‘classics league’ or whatever they’re calling it: it increases the chances of riders racing conservatively in order to get 8th place and keep their points level up, rather than risking it for the win.
    Cycling is far better for focusing on individual races rather than some false ‘season narrative’.

    • The World Cup wasn’t a bad idea. It made more cobble riders go to Ardennes and Lombardy and the other way around. Specialization and goal-picking impoverish the sport.

        • Make completing the course of certain classics a condition of entry to grand tours. ASO also own Paris-Roubaix, LBL and Fleche Wallonne. RCS own MSR and Lombardy, amongst others.

        • Why would it matter if the GT riders entered? If you’ve got Sagan, GVA, Kwiatkowski, Alaphilippe, Gilbert, Moscon et al, as well as Nibali, Valverde and Pinot from time to time, who would care about Froome turning up? Let him and Dumoulin concentrate on the Tour, there are plenty of other riders. I think a World Cup would be good. If Liege finished in Liege and Lombardy ditched the freak show on the Surmano most riders would be able to compete across the board.

  11. One remark: It seems to me that you re talking about two different rankings:
    * the UCI WorldTour-Ranking, as The Inner Ring said with the aim to find out “Who is the best rider in the UCI World Tour?” and
    * the Elite and Under 23 Men’s UCI World Ranking, wich counts “every race under the sun” as Richard S said.
    The first one is a bte like the FIS-WorldCups in skiing as the second one is more like the ATP-Ranking in tennis. Too complicated? Even the UCI thinks so: From 2019 on there is ni WorldTour-Ranking any more:
    * https://www.uci.org/docs/default-source/rules-and-regulations-right-column/part-ii-road-races-amendments-to-regulations-as-from-01-01-2019.pdf?sfvrsn=49ad32ed_18 ans (2.10.032) and
    * https://www.uci.org/inside-uci/press-releases/the-uci-management-committee-and-the-professional-cycling-council-unanimously-approve-the-new-organisation-of-men's-professional-road-cycling .

  12. A very interesting article, as always. That said, Mr. Inrng, and subject to all of the variables you mention above, who is your Rider of the Year? Or is that the subject of a future blog entry??

    • I don’t think I could pick one, part of the reason for the post above is to say rankings can’t rank different types of riders so picking one rider over another is a difficult ask. Some riders had a great season but picking one out is hard as nobody looked better than everyone else.

  13. As a quick sense check, the best riders do seem to finish at the top. However, as you say, if the points mean nothing in terms of the competitive order or money, then obviously no one is going to be racing to rack up the points – so the fact the better riders rank higher is almost certainly coincidental.

    Intuitively, there are a few things that seem ‘wrong’ (probably for political reasons…some races need a little ego boost, or attached prestige to have the same ranking as others). I think the gap between the tour and the vuelta and giro is absurd – if there’s an argument for ranking the tour higher due to its greater weight, then surely the giro should be ahead of the vuelta too. Otherwise, they should all be the same or at least very similar.
    Clearly, I think most would agree, the monuments should rank higher than some of the other one day races on there. And there are some one-week races that deserve to be ranked higher than others (paris-nice, tirreno-adriatico, romandie, dauphine all merit a little more weight; tour de suisse too perhaps).

    you mentioned that rankings are subjective, but if they were to be meaningful then the ranking itself would define objectivity. you could also have different ranking championships for different types of rider (GC, classics and sprinters) and riders would either enter then separately at the start of the year, or simply be counted in them as they race. in cricket the bowlers, batsmen and all-rounders are ranked separately, and teams are ranked separately for the different formats of the game (tests, ODIs, and T20s). teams play accordingly to try and get higher up in each format. however, if the ranking points mean nothing then no one will race differently.

    • “…if there’s an argument for ranking the tour higher due to its greater weight, then surely the giro should be ahead of the vuelta too. Otherwise, they should all be the same or at least very similar.”

      I think you might be right about the overall GT points, but I think the disparity makes sense for stage points. Winning a stage in the Tour is clearly much harder than either the Giro or Vuelta. Certainly for sprint stages, it’s possible for a second-tier sprinter to win multiple stages at the Giro or Vuelta, while at the Tour it’s brutally competitive. The Tour field is much deeper. I’d be interested in knowing how often Pro Conti riders win stages in the Vuelta and Giro, compared to the Tour. I suspect the presence of more elite domestiques in the Tour makes it that much harder for break-away wild card winners, etc.

      I completely agree that the monuments, as well as some high-prestige non-monuments, should have more points compared to some one-day races that don’t attract the same competitiveness. On the other hand, any kind of rating system must be somewhat arbitrary. The quality/difficulty of any of these races varies from year to year, either based on course adjustments, or more importantly the mix of riders changes from year to year.

      In the end, I suppose one way to rank riders is by the regard the rest of the peloton shows them. Who are the elite riders, and their DS’s, most worried about at the start of any race? Not that you can ever get that information with certainty, but I think Froome and Sagan would top those rankings for most of the last few years.

  14. rankings?… not much good for anything other than bar room/blogchat really. I don’t suppose the pros really care unless they win one by accident.
    Having said that, best beard, best hair, best tats, best tanlines… now those are rankings I could get behind.. ( Geschke, Oss, Pozzato, ?)

    having said that Felline has good hair, as does Reijnen… does Docker have his mullet currently? oh, it’s complicated….

  15. Is there really so much wrong with pro road cycling?

    The last few years have got us legendary editions of all of the monuments, this year even San Remo for godssake!

    I see “everyone” don’t see road cycling today as a sport that will live and or thrive as it is.
    But, why other than maybe the tier system for proconti/wt, would everything have to change.

    I for one are quite happy with the calendar being as it is. Spring classics, the normal run-up stage races and so on, it’s history, and I don’t see any wrong with it whatsoever.

    This sport actually was the demon in the sporting world because incidentally it was in front of the doping takedown from 1995-now, and then after with “some” high profile cases. It was unfair then, and it is certainly unfair now to look at a sport who really have cleaned some of its closets unlike other endurance and technical sports. (Yes, I’m looking at you track n’ field, long distance running, football (soccer for inhabitants of the USB), winter sports for those specially interested), any other sports.

    As in any other job, the employers will be against any thing they will have to pay for. It is not something that any sponsor in WT is particular about. To either exchange the CPA with something better, or make CPA stronger through UCI action would go a long way.

    The only thing stopping this is the ridiculous Velon/Hammer series and causes.
    There is track riding for shit like that.
    Let’s keep road racing as it is. I for one love it exactly as of today.

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