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by Fran Reyes
September 9, 2016
Going into the 2016 Tour de France, few could have predicted that Dimension Data would come out of the race with five stage wins, four of them to Mark Cavendish. And yet that’s exactly what happened, the African-registered team leaving Le Tour as arguably the most impressive squad behind overall winners Team Sky.
Those five Tour stage wins alone are more than several other WorldTour teams have achieved all season (Cannondale-Drapac, for example, hasn’t won at WorldTour level since the 2015 Giro d’Italia) and there have been other successes too. Steve Cummings can claim stage victories at the Tour of the Basque Country, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Criterium du Dauphine, in addition to a Tour stage win, while Edvald Boasson Hagen also won a stage at the Dauphine.
All in all, it’s been an impressive debut at the highest level of the sport for Dimension Data. And yet “Africa’s Team” could well find itself out of the WorldTour after just one season. Why? As Fran Reyes explains, it’s all down to an ever-changing WorldTour landscape and the battle for a reduced number of licenses.
The registration procedure for the 2017 UCI WorldTour is already underway with 18 teams applying for the 17 available UCI WorldTeam licenses — one fewer than was available this year. This is the first step towards the goal of having 16 teams in the WorldTour by 2018.
In order to be selected as a UCI WorldTeam for 2017, a team must satisfy a number of criteria, the main one relating to the team’s sporting achievements. The assessment of this ‘sporting criterion’ has been one of the longest, most silent battles in professional cycling.
Back in 2010, a mechanism called Sporting Value was introduced. It was a twisted point system which required huge amounts of work just to calculate how many points a single rider had.
This resulted in long-established teams such as FDJ losing their place at the top of the sport in favour of other teams who understood the system better and therefore signed riders with a haul of points netted in obscure races from all over the world.
Nowadays, the UCI establishes the assessment of the Sporting Criterion in its rulebook. Rule 2.15.011 reads: “The 16 UCI WorldTeams applying for UCI WorldTeam status for the following season that are the highest ranked on the UCI WorldTour team ranking of the season just completed shall be considered to have satisfied the sporting criterion.”
The remaining applicants will be evaluated by adding up the WorldTour points of the five best riders on their 2017 roster (i.e. the highest-ranked riders on the UCI’s WorldTour individual rankings.)
With Tinkoff and IAM both disappearing at the end of the season, the rest of the current WorldTeams should, according to the rule above, have their 2017 license granted. Thus, the 17th license for next year will either be awarded to Vincenzo Nibali’s Bahrain-Merida team (a new setup) or to Peter Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe (currently Pro Continental), with the Sporting Criterion being the defining factor.
What makes the situation unclear is a document sent by the UCI to those intending to apply to be part of the WorldTour or Pro Continental ranks in 2017. There, the Sporting Criterion is defined as follows:
“The 16 highest-placed UCI WorldTeams on the 2016 UCI WorldTour ranking at the end of the final UCI WorldTour event of the 2016 season will be considered to have automatically satisfied the sporting criterion for the 2017 season. The two last placed UCI WorldTeam on the 2016 UCI WorldTour ranking at the end of the final UCI WorldTour event of the 2016 season will be afforded ‘2017 UCI WorldTour candidate’ status”, along with those “other teams existing in 2016 and newly-created” teams aspiring to become a WorldTeam in 2017.
Those ‘2017 UCI WorldTour candidates’ would be evaluated by adding up the points of their five best riders of the 2016 or 2017 roster in the UCI WorldTour individual rankings.
In other words: because it currently sits in 18th and last position on the UCI WorldTour rankings (see table below), Dimension Data is now fighting with Bahrain-Merida and Bora-Hansgrohe for the two open slots in the 2017 UCI WorldTour. (As the 17th-ranked team, IAM Cycling would be too but, again, they’re folding at the end of the year).
While there seem to be two different selection criteria for next year’s WorldTour places — one in the UCI’s official documents and another being sent out to prospective teams — several team managers have told CyclingTips they believe the latter is the criterion that will prevail. The UCI hasn’t yet provided clarification to CyclingTips. Either way, one of the teams currently applying for WorldTour status in 2017 won’t obtain it.
That team won’t get an automatic invite to the best races in the world and will instead have to rely on the wildcards given by the organisers to participate. That wasn’t the scenario a couple of weeks ago.
In mid-August, it wasn’t just Tinkoff and IAM set to disappear from the WorldTour ranks. By losing its Merida sponsorship to the Bahrain project, the team currently known as Lampre-Merida seemed destined to downgrade to Pro Continental status. But then the team was bought by TJ Sports Group and became a player again in the race for a 2017 WorldTour license.
“That was a surprise for everyone,” admits Douglas Ryder, general Manager of the Dimension Data team. Now, his team may have a problem. Despite being one of the most successful teams in the WorldTour it is at the bottom of the team ranking. As a result, its WorldTour license is at risk.
While the UCI reform agreement announced in June said that teams dropping down under the planned promotion/relegation system would be guaranteed a ride in all WorldTour events the following year, Ryder told CyclingTips that this would only be the case from 2018 onwards.
Like Dimension Data, Bahrain-Merida was caught off-guard too. There was an agreement for that team to buy most of Lampre’s infrastructure, along with the contracts of the riders set to be part of Lampre in 2017. Now that agreement is no longer in place and the riders seem set to ride for Giuseppe Saronni’s TJ Sport/Lampre setup next season.
A particular case is that of Louis Meintjes. He is close to fellow South African Brent Copeland, Lampre-Merida’s current general manager and future general manager of Bahrain-Merida. Meintjes was set to follow Copeland to Bahrain but now doesn’t know what his future holds. “Still unclear,” he told CyclingTips at the Vuelta a España.
As it stands, teams are now thrown into a scenario where they have to fight for points – or maybe buy them by signing riders that weren’t part of their original plans.
Only taking into account the already-announced signings, Bahrain-Merida has just signed Enrico Gasparotto and has 549 points on its 2017 roster, while Bora-Hansgrohe has 632. Dimension Data can claim considerably fewer: 224. The African team could ask to be evaluated on the basis of its 2016 roster, but that still only adds up to a total of 272 points.
While Dimension Data had a superb Tour, taking five stage wins, Cannondale has benefited from a points system which rewards single-day races and GC performances over stage wins. For example, placing seventh in any WorldTour stage race, sixth in any WorldTour Classic or 13th in any Grand Tour is worth more points than winning a Tour de France stage.
The UCI WorldTour team rankings, as of August 28 (i.e. before the Vuelta).
As for the cyclists who haven’t officially signed for 2017, Louis Meintjes is worth 85 points. Other riders available in the market and with a handful of points to their name are Domenico Pozzovivo (32), Larry Warbasse (30) and Maciej Paterski (24).
When asked if he would consider signing riders to satisfy the Sporting Criterion, Dimension Data’s Doug Ryder was straight to the point.
“We are a team with a clear project of developing African cycling,” Ryder said. “Our focus shouldn’t and won’t be to go shopping for points.”
He prefers to rely on the performance of his team: “Situation is sad, but there is still one month of competition left.”
Indeed, the remaining UCI WorldTour races could well be decisive. With the final days of the Vuelta a España, the two Canadian classics, the Eneco Tour and Il Lombardia still to go, there is a huge number of points up for grabs.
There’s also the Team Time Trial World Championships, scheduled to take place in Doha, Qatar on October 9, which affords 200 points to its winner. At the moment, the event could see a boycott from UCI WorldTeams because, as a race organiser, the UCI is not paying for the teams’ expenses. Some teams seem willing to take a stand, trying to force the UCI to cover their expenses as other race organisers do to varying degrees.
“Unfortunately the TTT is not our strength and there is still a decision pending between UCI and AIGCP [the teams’ union] on this,” Ryder said when asked if he’d consider sending his team to compete in Doha even if they have to pay for travel expenses.
Dimension Data will need to perform strongly in the remaining WorldTour events this season if it is to guarantee itself another year at the highest level in 2017. But the season isn’t yet over and if the last couple months have taught us anything, it’s that things can change quickly when it comes to the make-up of the highest tier of men’s road cycling.
Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modelling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF