The weekly spin: The fallacy of a season long WorldTour narrative

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The 2018 UCI WorldTour calendar came to a close Sunday with the final stage of the Tour of Guangxi. Do you know who won the stage? Do you know who won the overall?

Another question: Do you care?

That’s not meant to be a knock on the Tour of Guangxi, though I maintain it’s odd that a brand-new event was granted instant inclusion into the UCI’s highest tier of road events last year. (The Tour of Guangxi made its debut in 2017, following in the footsteps of the Tour of Beijing, which ran between 2011 and 2014 and also debuted straight into the WorldTour.)

The same questions apply for the Presidential Tour of Turkey, a race that’s been around since 1963, international since 2006, and upgraded to WorldTour status last year. It was held September 9-14, across the same weekend as Il Lombardia. Did you pay attention? Do you know who won? Do you care?

If you consider yourself a fan of professional cycling, yet answered no to any of those questions, it’s time to acknowledge there’s a problem.

The 2018 UCI WorldTour began on January 16, at the Santos Down Under, with Daryl Impey taking the win ahead of Richie Porte. It ended 278 days later — nine months and five days after it began — in anticlimax.

There was plenty to cheer in the WorldTour this year. Peter Sagan finally won Paris-Roubaix, in the rainbow jersey no less. Chris Froome came from behind to win the Giro d’Italia, becoming the simultaneous champion of all three Grand Tours. Geraint Thomas won the Tour de France, finishing in the top 10 of a Grand Tour for the first time in his career. Simon Yates won the Vuelta a España after a disappointing Giro d’Italia, where he’d led for 13 days but plummeted to 21st overall in the final mountain stages. Vincenzo Nibali won Milan-San Remo in March, and finished runner-up to Thibaut Pinot in September. And Quick-Step Floors took a demonstrative 37 WorldTour victories, including two Monuments.

Italian Gianni Moscon (Team Sky) won Stage 4, and the overall title, at the 2018 Tour of Guangxi.

In total, the WorldTour calendar constituted about 180 days of racing across 37 events (17 stage races and 20 one-day races) in 15 different countries. The number of riders, across 18 WorldTour teams, is around 475.

There’s long been discussion over the years about “improving the narrative” of the professional racing season. But given the number of events, the number of race days, the number of riders, the number of countries, and the length of the calendar, is that possible? And what would it look like?

It’s an easy question to ask, and a hard question to answer. But in simplest terms, pro cycling deserves better than for its marquee series to end with a whimper, with races that few fans, journalists, or even riders care about.

Ultimately, it’s a question of identity. What purpose should a calendar of the highest tier of UCI road events serve? Should it be an attempt to globalize the sport, and thereby attract new international fans, or should it be an attempt to streamline the calendar and thereby make the sport more accessible to casual and committed fans alike?

WORLDTOUR BACKSTORY

The UCI WorldTour was launched in 2011, though it truly began in 2005, as the UCI ProTour. The ProTour, the brainchild of former UCI president Hein Verbruggen, replaced the UCI World Cup, a season-long series of 10 one-day races, which ran from 1989 to 2004. The ProTour incorporated Grand Tours and weeklong stage races into its 28-race calendar, encouraging the best riders in the world to participate in all of the biggest races, as well as granting multi-year ProTour licenses to 20 teams, which guaranteed invitations to all events. This included, quite crucially, guaranteed access to the Tour de France.

Quarreling over event organizers’ leeway to invite wildcard teams led to a blow up in 2008. Race organizers, led by Tour owners ASO and Giro owners RCS Sport, flexed their collective muscle at the 2008 Tour de France, forcing teams to side with them over the UCI. Ultimately, former UCI president Pat McQuaid met with ASO owner Marie-Odile Amaury to hash things out; soon after, ASO president Patrice Clerc stepped down.

A new UCI World Ranking points system followed, and for the 2011 season, the ProTour was rebranded as the WorldTour. Among the focuses of the WorldTour have been to globalize the sport by expanding it outside of western Europe, to create stability for teams and events, and to foster a meaningful season-long narrative.

In 2017, the WorldTour rules were rewritten. Ten new events were added to the series on a three-year “trial run,” including the Amgen Tour of California and the Tour of Guangxi. These events were required to have 10 WorldTour teams in attendance or risk being dropped. WorldTour teams, though guaranteed invitations, were not required to attend these new additions; attendance was made voluntary. Additionally, Continental teams would be allowed to compete at these new WorldTour races upon a dispensation from the UCI.

In a November 2016 article, I referred to these 10 ancillary events as “WorldTour lite.” Upon reflection, I think I was being generous; applying the WorldTour label to events that are not elevated to the same status and are not bound by the same regulations dilutes the entire WorldTour brand.

An April 2017 article on the sports market intelligence site SportCal addressed the issues of the expanding WorldTour in straightforward terms.

“The existing structure of the UCI WorldTour is not sufficiently accessible for casual fans to engage with the sport. Only the most committed, hardcore cycling fans tend to closely follow the season and monitor the rider and team leader boards from start to finish,” the article stated. “A better balanced and concise calendar with races of more equal footing, similar to a Formula 1 or Moto GP structure, would provide a clearer narrative for fans and the potential for a better season culmination for broadcasters and sponsors to build towards.”

WORLDTOUR NARRATIVES

Let’s discuss the most obvious WorldTour storylines from the 2018 season. It’s not hard. British riders won all three Grand Tours. Quick-Step Floors won everything else.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the Belgian squad did register 73 wins (37 at the WorldTour level) by 15 different riders, including two Monuments, 13 Grand Tour stages, and the World Team Time Trial Championship. They won at the Tour Down Under, the World Tour opener, with Elia Viviani, and they won at the Tour of Guangxi, the WorldTour finale, with Fabio Jakobsen.

Quick-Step owned the WorldTour team ranking with 13,385 points, well ahead of Team Sky, which had 10,213 points. At the bottom of that list, Dimension Data had just 1,953 points — a number that would have ranked only 11th if the team’s results belonged to an individual rider. In terms of results, Quick-Step was the main storyline of the 2018 WorldTour season, and it was only fitting that a Quick-Step rider won the final stage of the final World Tour event.

Quick-Step Floors won the 2018 WorldTour Team Classification with 37 wins that included two Monuments, 13 Grand Tour stages, and a win at the World Team Time Trial Championship for a record fourth time. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images.

There were other narratives in pro cycling, of course. Froome and Thomas winning Grand Tours in 2018 ties together a narrative that spans seasons: Team Sky wins what it sets out to win, with six yellow jerseys across seven Tours de France since 2012, won by three different riders.

Outside of British riders and Team Sky, Tom Dumoulin’s impressive season deserves mention. The Dutch rider was second at the Giro to Froome, second at the Tour to Thomas, second in the world time trial championship to Rohan Dennis, and fourth at the world road championship. None of these were victories — his only wins in 2018 were time trials at the Giro and Tour —  but his consistency when it mattered most was truly impressive.

Now, let’s tie those narratives back into the race calendar. What do you remember from the 2018 season? Which events mattered most? Which didn’t matter at all? Can you, a cycling fan, even remember who won most events on the WorldTour calendar?

And the big question: Should the races that didn’t matter really be part of the sport’s top tier?

Perhaps we should all just accept that the WorldTour really cannot offer a season-long narrative, and is instead just a collection of marquee events. What would a season-long narrative even look like? Unless you’re going to give the rainbow jersey to the rider who wins WorldTour ranking, maybe a nine-month tale of the season just isn’t feasible across the pro road calendar — at least not in its current iteration.

Belgian Johan Museeuw was the 1996 world road champion, but was often seen sporting the vertical stripes of the UCI World Cup series leader, winning the overall title in 1995 and 1996.

I asked Sagan about just this back in 2016, after he won both the road world championship and the UCI WorldTour individual ranking. Which carries more weight? Which tells a better story?

“It’s much harder to win the UCI ranking,” Sagan said. “It’s an effort for the whole year. You have to beat all the climbers, the general classification riders, and also ride for the classics, to win as many points as possible. The world championship is about one day — you can have good luck, you can have bad luck. I’m very happy to win the world championship. It’s amazing, and it’s unbelievable. I had a lot of luck, but it’s just about one day. It’s not like you can lose one day and then go for another victory.”

Citing varying worlds courses that suit different riders on different years, Sagan suggested that it might make more sense for the UCI to award the world champion’s jersey to the number-one ranked rider in the world, not unlike the former UCI World Cup series, which awarded its own vertically striped alternative rainbow jersey to one-day specialists such as Sean Kelly, Johan Museeuw, Michele Bartoli, and Paolo Bettini.

“One year [on a world championships course] there are a lot of climbs, and the sprinters will be dropped, and another time it’s just flat, and there is no chance for the climbers,” Sagan said. “The UCI ranking could make sense [to determine the world champion.] It’s much harder, it’s an effort for the whole year, it’s the best cyclist of the year. The cyclist who wins the UCI ranking would maybe make more sense.”

Other sports build to a season-ending finale; a round of quarterfinals and semifinals before the big match to determine the sport’s grand champion. Pro cycling doesn’t lend itself to tournaments and duels, but the idea of a grand finale is easily applicable. However the Tour de France is the sport’s biggest event, and it falls right in the middle of the calendar. That’s not going to change — July offers the best weather, and the race is held while most of Europe is off on holiday — so the question of how to construct a calendar around the Tour de France remains.

WORLDTOUR REFORMS

At the road world championships in September, the UCI announced WorldTour reforms to take place in 2020, including a new “Classics Series” that will include the five Monuments and up to 15 “top-tier events” which sounds a lot like the World Cup of old, only with more events. It’s an old idea, made new again.

Starting in 2020, Pro Continental teams will be called ProTeams. Marquee non-WorldTour events at the Hors Categorie and Class 1 category will be designated as part of a new UCI “ProSeries.” The two top-ranked UCI ProTeams from the ProSeries will be granted automatic selection to the three Grand Tours; the three top-ranked ProTeams will be granted automatic entry to compete at Classics Series events.

Collectively, this will take some of the “wild” out of Grand Tour and Monument wildcard selections, reducing organizers’ ability to select teams for its events, a throwback to the UCI/ASO battles a decade ago. One detail that has not been clarified is exactly when those ProSeries and Classics Series rankings will be taken into account. Will the rankings be based on the previous season? A month before a race? It’s no small feat to assemble the staff  required to field a team for a monthlong stage race, and riders must plan their seasons around something as grand as, well, a Grand Tour. It’s a decent idea in theory, but top ProTeams will press the UCI for as much advance notice as possible.

A September 2018 press release addressing the “new organization of men’s professional road cycling” references the need to “improve the narrative of the season,” yet the future WorldTour looks a lot like the WorldTour we’ve seen for years.

A new UCI World Ranking and relegation system will be put into place next year, allowing top Pro Continental teams to challenge underperforming WorldTour teams for one of the coveted 18 WorldTour spots. This should make for a very interesting system, as team sponsorships are often largely rooted in guaranteed entry to the Tour de France.

Additionally, the UCI World Ranking will be the only ranking to be calculated at the international level; the UCI WorldTour Ranking will no longer exist. That should be a worthwhile correction; in 2018, Simon Yates topped the UCI WorldTour standings ahead of Sagan and Alejandro Valverde, while Valverde led the World Ranking ahead of Yates and Viviani. That’s kind of ridiculous.

In total, the future WorldTour will constitute about 185 days of racing, including overlapping events… a lot like the WorldTour we’ve seen for years.

By comparison, the 2019 UCI Mountain-Bike World Cup calendar will offer seven rounds for cross-country and eight events for downhill. The 2018-19 UCI Cyclocross World Cup schedule has nine events. The 2018 Formula 1 calendar is made up of 21 events; the provisional 2019 Moto GP calendar has 19 events. Each offers a series that is simple enough to follow, with a narrow enough focus as to cultivate a season-long narrative.

The UCI Women’s WorldTour, which launched in 2016, is a model of a series where the WorldTour label is meaningful. It’s a shorter series for wholly different reasons, with just 24 events, but its March to October calendar has more of  narrative arc, awarding the best individual rider, best team, and best young rider for those under 23. American Megan Guarnier topped the first individual ranking, in 2016, while Dutch riders Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten won in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

WORLDTOUR SOLUTIONS

I don’t relate to those who lose interest in pro bike racing after the Tour de France. I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that the Vuelta a España should be shortened to two weeks, or that it shouldn’t be part of the WorldTour. I watch the Vuelta closely, both for its unique role as race of redemption and development, and also for how serves as predictor for Lombardia and the world championship. To me, the Vuelta is the afterparty, the perfect comedown after the extravaganza that is the Tour.

But I do think the pro road season runs far too long — and that the problem is found at the end of the season, which drags on, rather than at the start, when fans are eager and ready for bike racing after a lengthy absence. Excitement isn’t a problem in January or February, it’s a problem in October.

A suggestion: Have a true season finale by closing out the WorldTour with the road world championships. Swap calendar dates between road worlds and Il Lombardia, so that Lombardia comes a week before worlds. Hold the fancy UCI Cycling Gala on the night of the elite men’s road race, when more riders and teams will be in attendance, rather than in East Asia a month later.

And then cull the current WorldTour calendar by half. Maybe more.

The world championships are currently not part of the WorldTour rankings; worlds are contested by national teams, not trade teams. Yet from 2012 through 2018, the world team time trial championship, though not part of the WorldTour calendar, was contested by trade teams at the road world championships. Equating a trade-team event held at worlds to a national-team event at worlds is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but these point allocations are all just arbitrary. The world championships belong to the UCI, as does the WorldTour brand; the world championship can certainly be included as the WorldTour finale.

As it was, Yates topped the WorldTour rankings with 3072 points, ahead of Sagan, with 2992 points, and Valverde, with 2609 points. If the world road championship had been included as a WorldTour race, and had been given the same 500-point status as the five Monuments — that number will rise to 600 points in 2019 — Valverde would have been crowned both world champion and individual WorldTour winner on the same day, which, under this proposal, would have also been the final day of WorldTour racing on the calendar.

Ask yourself this: Would that have made for a better climax to the season than the Tour of Guangxi?

Even if it was not made a WorldTour event, the road world championships would still serve as a preferable season finale than Turkey and Guangxi, which, along with many of these other “WorldTour Lite” events, should be relegated back to the new UCI ProSeries. Maybe the UCI can figure out a relegation system for these events, similar to what it has proposed for teams, so that some events graduate into — and others out of — the WorldTour. There’s no shame in being a second-tier event. If 185 days of racing are top-tier race days, there is no top tier, just a wide plateau; the pyramid is a trapezoid.

And while the UCI’s planned Classics Series sounds interesting, it’s a series within a series — a narrative within a narrative. Who does this serve? It’s just added confusion.

Ultimately, it seems the WorldTour should consist of the three Grand Tours, the five Monuments, the world championships, and a handful of other key events. All the rest is noise.


The weekly spin is a column from our Editor at Large offering commentary and analysis on topics ranging from racing to tech to industry to travel to simple observations from the saddle.

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