The lack of racing in the winter months inevitably means that the news and discussion emerging from the cycling world comes from other corners of the sport that don’t involve turning pedals. Doping is the usual off-season topic to revert to, but as we are currently in a lull between the USADA report and the outcomes of the various other investigations that are taking place (UCI, Mantova, Padua), the current hot topic seems to be that of the UCI points system.
There are three stories which have emerged in recent weeks which highlight the various unwanted side affects caused by the current UCI points system which rewards riders rather than teams (a thorough breakdown of the system has been provided by The Inner Ring who highlights the fact that it may in fact be misunderstood by many riders). There are a number of facets to the application process in getting a team into the World Tour, of which the points scored via racing is just one, but it is the one which receives the most focus.
Steve Houanard of AG2R-La Mondiale was told the following by his team manager Vincent Lavenu told before the recent Tour of Beijing:
I told him we do not keep him in the team. I had told him that the door is not 100% closed, but he knew it would be difficult to change our mind.
Houanard translated this statement as a requirement to score some UCI points in China to help the team with its application for ProTeam status for 2013. Having achieved no top 10 finishes at all in 2012, Houanard decided to up his game by taking EPO. He subsequently tested positive and is now facing a two year ban from the sport.
Then there’s Matt Brammeier of OmegaPharma-QuickStep. The triple Irish champion came to the Belgian team having had a successful year as a domestique at HTC-Columbia. He has had an unfortunate year which was hampered by a knee injury. His lack of points has rendered him officially worthless according to the UCI and has left him without a contract at OmegaPharma-QuickStep and, thus far, teamless for next season.
Finally, Gianni Meersman has been making the news recently as he decided to leave Lotto-Belisol because they have still not yet received confirmation that they will be part of the UCI World Tour next year. Meersman’s situation is complicated by the fact that he will leave his points behind him at Lotto-Belisol because a particular deadline has passed, but nevertheless, Lotto-Belisol are now one (successful) rider down coming into next year because of the UCI points system.
The points system itself is difficult to come to terms with. The UCI have applied an (arbitrary?, subjective?) points system races which rewards individuals and yet when it comes to issuing licenses, it is teams that are examined. The problem boils down to one of the major quirks of cycling, in that it is a team sport where events are won by individuals.
Consider the English Premier League. Teams maintain their top tier status by gaining points which they earn by winning individual matches. Three points for a win, one point for a draw. The three teams with the least points at the end of the season loses their top tier status.
Now imagine if the Premier League reverted to rewarding individuals instead of teams. Isn’t it goals which decide football matches anyway? What if teams were awarded a place in next year’s Premier League based on the accumulated amount of goals the players on their current squad scored throughout the previous season? The three teams with the least amount of goals scored amongst the players on their team are relegated.
What would that spell for individual Premier League fixtures? Strikers become the major commodity and the players less inclined to score goals become expendable. The art of defending would be abandoned, everybody would want to score goals and nobody would care if they win or lose the game. Just as riders who win races are precious and domestiques are becoming expendable.
But where cycling and football differ is that in football the league table is ultimately the thing that matters. Individual matches are important of course, nobody wants to lose to their closest rivals for instance, but the points tally at the end of the season is paramount. Teams are judged by their league position.
But in cycling, each individual race is infinitely more important than the UCI’s contrived ranking system. A team would rather win the Tour de France, than finish ‘top of the league’.
Today, the UCI WorldTour co-ordinator Javier Barrio has come out and defended the UCI points system:
The key word is league. Now everyone can talk about something that starts with 18 teams in January and by October there is a classification that determines who is the top rider, which is the best team and which is the strongest nation… Now in every race there is something in play, there are crucial points at stake that ensure teams always take the races seriously.
But everyone does not talk about this ‘league’. The only reason it is news-worthy now is because the future of riders and teams relies on the outcome of the league. It has no inherent sporting value, unlike football where winning the league is the ultimate achievement for the athletes. To further highlight the absurdity of the UCI placing importance on their league is the riders who finished first and second this year, Joaquim Rodriguez and Bradley Wiggins raced against each other just once, at the Worlds Road Race, which isn’t even part of the World Tour.
Barrio goes on to say:
We have generated interested in a more consistent way.
Does anybody follow the Tour Down Under or the Tour of Beijing because they can’t wait to see how the outcome shapes the resulting league table? People follow these races because they are on television, the league table matters not. Barrio persists:
That is another problem…people have to understand that there would be no World Tour without a points system.
With the exceptions of the Tour of Beijing and the two Canadian one day races which are all recent inventions, every one of the other 26 races on the World Tour calendar has managed capably without the presence of the World Tour points ranking.
Barrio does admit that there are flaws in the system, such as the weighting of points for races on the lower tier tours (UCI Europe Tour, UCI Asia Tour etc.) is not perfect. He also addresses the issue of points being awarded to riders and not to teams but says no changes to this approach have been confirmed during discussions thus far.
The process of creating a system where teams have an avenue to reach the top tier of cycling teams and where the threat of relegation looms for under-performing teams is a complicated one. No system will be perfect, but the fact that riders are awarded points rather than teams seems such an obvious flaw in the system it is alarming that this is not being addressed as a matter of urgency.
Cycling has many problems, some related to doping others relating to the weird team sponsorship model that the sport has adopted. But unlike drugs and global finance, the UCI has complete control over the points system that they use and it is something that they can sort out now.
To have a UCI representative publicly declare that the UCI World Tour and its point system has “contributed a great deal” and has “revitalised cycling” is insulting to riders like Matt Brammeier, Steve Houanard and Gianni Meersman. Fans don’t care about a cycling league table. The sooner the UCI realise this, the better.