How the WorldTour relegation battle is negatively impacting racing: 'Cycling shouldn't be like this'
Chasing points means that riders are being forced to change how and where they race
The elephant in the room of WorldTour relegation remains a topic that teams and riders do not want to discuss, but the matter is having notable effects on racing that is also damaging the spectacle.
In the autumn of 2019 the UCI introduced a three-year points system whereby the top-ranked 18 teams would secure a WorldTour licence for three seasons from 2023.
At the time of writing, both Israel-PremierTech and Lotto-Soudal are facing elimination from cycling's top table, but there are six sides who are also nervously looking over their shoulder, fearful of a demotion to the ProTeams ranks which wouldn't guarantee them their spot in the biggest races, such as the Grand Tours and the Classics.
Teams have long since expressed their displeasure at the system, and have vowed to try bring about change with the UCI this autumn, but right now the current points system is forcing a change to racing, including at the current Vuelta a España.
Take EF Education-EasyPost, for example, who are currently in 17th position, just over 500 points better off that Lotto. They have three former Grand Tour podium finishers in their eight-man roster, but rather than build a GC challenge around one of only Hugh Carthy, Rigo Urán or Esteban Chaves, instead they're targeting high placings for them all because that could yield more UCI points to stave off the threat of relegation.
"We're aiming to put as many guys as high as possible because from the point of view of points, it's better if we have Hugh, Esteban and Rigo all in the top-12 than we have one of the guys on the podium," James Shaw said, and he's right. If one of the three finished third, they'd accrue 575 points. If the American team have finishers in sixth, 10th and 11th, they'll earn 580 points.
Shaw added: "It's s**t because sport shouldn't be like that, should it? Everybody should be racing for first place, but because of the way the points work, we're taking a different angle.
"It's a strange tactic, I know, and people might be watching the TV and wondering what's happening, but that's what we've got to do at the minute. It's just for this year but we're aiming to get the points, to get us over the finish line and then next year we'll see what we can do."
EF are not alone. Movistar, the team below them in 18th, are confident of at least a podium place with Enric Mas and are therefore not targeting multiple riders in the top-10.
But Carlos Verona recalled how just one month ago he was pressurised to fight for his top-30 GC placing in the Tour de France that earned his team 30 points.
"I was 27th and in the last few days the team told me that if I didn't have to lose time, I had to try and stay there and be in the top-30," Verona said. "It's something that is happening a lot and I think the UCI must see this and change the points system in the future.
"I have been cycling for 20 years and never in my life have I been thinking to be in the top-20 of a race. It's a little crazy. People like to watch riders win, not to be 13th, so it's really something we should change.
"In our case right now it's a little different because Enric is at his best and we have a chance to win the Vuelta, and I think it would be stupid from us to go for the 100 points for 10th position [ed - 140 points] and sacrifice the 800 points [ed - 850 points] for potentially winning.
"But if Alejandro [Valverde] and I can get in the top-20, then it's good points for the team. But we're not going to go for that. We will try to stay focused, do our best Vuelta and be on the podium in Madrid."
Arkéa-Samsic are currently in 14th place in the standings with an advantage of just over a 1,000 points to Lotto, but they were plunged back into the relegation conversation by the news of Nairo Quintana's disqualification from the Tour de France.
They haven't altered their target of winning stages at the Vuelta, but their sprinter Dan McLay drew attention to the fact that big teams are being forced to send star riders to small one-day races just because of the number of points on offer.
"I don't think it's affecting things much here [at the Vuelta] because ultimately some teams are always going to keep their options open, but in some other races there's definitely panic chasing happening," the Briton said.
"But it's affecting the program and who goes to what races. This is the biggest thing because these smaller races have a stronger startlist now and maybe it's keeping these races alive, but the riders aren't the biggest fans of the system."
Cycling Weekly understands that a host of teams will be meeting with the UCI in the autumn to try to restructure the points system, but they are likely to be met by a wall of a refusal from cycling's governing body who are fearful of smaller, one-day races losing their prestige and appeal and ultimately losing their funding.
Verona, however, will press ahead with trying to force through change. "I am part of the Riders Union and when the season is finished, it's something we'll have to talk about," the Spaniard said. "I hope we can have a meeting with the UCI and [its president David] Lappartient because I think it's important for the sport. I know the teams will do this and I hope they change things."
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Chris first started writing for Cycling Weekly in 2013 on work experience and has since become a regular name in the magazine and on the website. Reporting from races, long interviews with riders from the peloton and riding features drive his love of writing about all things two wheels.
Probably a bit too obsessed with mountains, he was previously found playing and guiding in the Canadian Rockies, and now mostly lives in the Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees where he’s a ski instructor in the winter and cycling guide in the summer. He almost certainly holds the record for the most number of interviews conducted from snowy mountains.
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