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by Iain Treloar
October 8, 2019
Photography by Kristof Ramon and Cor Vos
As the season winds to a close, the planning for 2020 and beyond begins in earnest. For the teams of the professional peloton, an important part of that is sorting out licenses for the coming season, and submitting the relevant applications to the UCI.
A couple of days ago, the UCI released the list of the teams that had applied for a WorldTour license for the period 2020-2022, as well as the teams that had thrown their hat in the ring for ProTeam (the artist formerly known as Pro Continental) status. Whilst this may at first glance seem like a pretty dry bit of off-season admin, it’s actually pretty interesting – both for what it tells us about the health of pro cycling, and for what the possible ramifications are for the next three seasons.
In late 2018, the UCI announced a raft of changes to team structures, proposed to come into effect from the 2020 season. Among these were increases in team sizes – a minimum of 27 riders for WorldTour teams, up from 23 – and a maintained status quo when it came to WorldTour team numbers – 18 teams, rather than a proposed 15. More controversial was the introduction of a rating system that would relegate teams from the WorldTour if they finished outside the top 18 teams from 2017-2019 on a ranking inclusive of Pro Continental teams. Under this rule, Katusha-Alpecin and Dimension Data would have been at risk of relegation, as they languished down the bottom of the team table, rubbing shoulders with Pro Conti teams like Cofidis and Wanty-Gobert.
The teams didn’t know they were competing for points to stay in the top division in 2017-18, because the rule hadn’t been introduced then, so under threat of landing in a legal snafu the UCI backed down, increasing the number of available slots for WorldTour licenses to 20. That means that all existing WorldTour teams are, if they continue to meet all other requirements, safe. It also means that two new teams are able to step up to the WorldTour for the next three years.
All 18 existing WorldTour teams are applying for licenses for the coming cycle, albeit with one name change and one merger. Team Dimension Data is now NTT Pro Cycling; and Katusha-Alpecin’s license has been bought by Israel Cycling Academy, with the team listed in 2020 applications as Team Katusha-Israel Cycling Academy.
Israel Cycling Academy at the GP Montréal team presentation. Photo: Oran Kelly/Cor Vos © 2019
That leaves two spots free in the top division. Initially, it looked like there’d be 22 teams jostling for 20 spaces, but things have turned out rather more neatly. Two teams have got their paperwork in – Arkéa-Samsic and Cofidis. If they land in the top 18 teams of the 2017-19 ranking, they’ll have satisfied the sporting requirements for a WorldTour license.
Meanwhile, the future NTT and Katusha-Israel Cycling Academy teams only need to land in the top 20 to retain their license, which should be a foregone conclusion.
By our reading of the regulations, it looks like Arkéa-Samsic and Cofidis will only receive a WorldTour license if they finish above both Dimension Data and Katusha-Alpecin on the cumulative points tally of 2017-19 – introducing a possibility that despite there being 20 slots available and 20 applicants, there may only be 18 WorldTour teams next year regardless.
It’s all a bit ambiguous, so we approached the UCI for clarification on the eligibility of the two teams and the transfer of points with riders, but were yet to receive a response at time of publication.
Whilst the number of teams applying for WorldTour licenses has swelled, the picture is a little more sobering when you take a look at the number of ProTeams. In 2019, there were 24 Pro Continental teams; for 2020, just 18 teams have applied for ProTeam licenses.
Two of the 2019 cohort, Cofidis and Arkéa-Samsic, have applied to step up to the WorldTour, while Israel Cycling Academy is already safe thanks to the Katusha merger.
Nippo-Vini Fantini-Faizane, Roompot-Charles and Euskadi Basque Country-Murias are shutting their doors, while Hagens Berman Axeon is dropping back to Continental level. The Portuguese W52 / FC Porto squad – whom, I will happily admit, I have never even heard of – aren’t applying for a license this year.
In this bleak landscape, there are two teams applying to step up to ProTeam level – the Uno-X Norwegian Development Team, and Fundacion Euskadi-Orbea.
As part of the swathe of changes introduced by the UCI for the 2020-22 seasons, there’s one important side-effect of the introduction of a 20-team WorldTour: it totally upsets the apple cart when it comes to wildcards.
While there are fewer second-division teams competing for the wildcards at the major races, there are also fewer wildcards on offer. At the newly formed Classics Series – 20 of the biggest one-day races on the calendar, including the Monuments – there will be between 21 and 25 teams of seven riders, with the three top-ranked ProTeams getting the call-up (along with any spare wildcards the organisers want to throw out).
For many teams, though, it’s exposure at the Grand Tours that their sponsors are really dropping coin for. If there are 20 WorldTour teams – assuming that Arkéa-Samsic and Cofidis satisfy the requirements for a license – here will be just two wildcards at each of the 2020-22 Grand Tours, compared to four at each of the 2019 Grand Tours. All 20 WorldTour teams will need to attend, leaving the remaining two wildcards at the discretion of the race organisers. These selections are often (but not always) made along national lines, and are highly coveted.
At Grand Tours, the wildcard teams are a popular part of the race – as here, with Lilian Calmejane (Total Direct Energie) surfing a wave of homecrowd support on the Tourmalet at the 2019 Tour de France.
At the 2020 Giro d’Italia, at least one of the three lavishly-sponsored Italian squads – Androni Giocattoli – Sidermec, Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè and Neri Sottoli-Selle Italia-KTM – will be staying home.
At the next Tour de France, meanwhile, the organisers will be forced to omit one of the French ProTeams – B&B Hotels-Vital Concept or Team Total Direct Energie – or bump regular Belgian invitee, Wanty-Gobert.
And at the Vuelta, luckily – or unluckily, depending on your point of view – there are just two Spanish ProTeams left to jostle for the remaining slots, meaning Fundacion Euskadi-Orbea and Caja Rural-Seguros BCA should sail into their home Grand Tour.
However, if Arkéa-Samsic or Cofidis are unsuccessful in their applications for WorldTour status, the situation becomes even more desperate for the ProTeams – especially at the Tour de France, where there’ll be another two local teams battling for an invite.
It’s probably fair to say that you don’t become a professional cyclist for the career stability, but the situation this year seems increasingly volatile, especially on the fringes of the WorldTour. The shuttering of so many Pro Conti teams this year – in some cases as a direct result of the change in rules for 2020, as with Nippo-Vini-Fantini, who cited the reduction in wildcards as a reason for shutting up shop – will see many riders out of a job or having to take a step back in prestige. Whilst there’s a glimmer of hope in the general increase in minimum team sizes, there’s also a reduction in the maximum number of riders allowed, meaning it all sorta comes out in the wash.
And if it feels like we’re entering a period of calm, having transitioned over to the new structure, don’t get too comfortable. In 2023, the WorldTour peloton will be trimmed back to 18 teams again. Best gobble up as many points over the next three years as possible, because we’re not out of the woods yet.