Will we see a team relegation showdown in China?

There is suddenly real danger in poor performance.

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Over the past couple of months, professional cycling has done something weird. It’s started, for better or worse, to feel like a proper sport.

There is suddenly real danger in poor performance. Relegation has come to cycling. The prospect that one of the current 18 WorldTour teams could lose their licence based on their accumulation of UCI points. There is now much more at stake than just whoever crosses the line first.

This is unchartered territory for a sport where it’s not necessarily a closed shop, but you have to pay to play. Previously, with enough financial backing, you could effectively buy your way into the WorldTour. See Sylvan Adams, Oleg Tinkov, and many more. But now results matter too if you want to stay in the top division.

Two ProTeams are currently sitting comfortably in the top 18 of the ranking, which means there are two WorldTeams outside it. Alpecin-Fenix are in seventh while Arkéa-Samsic are in 12th, and both teams have stated their intent to take the opportunity to move up to the WorldTour. There are other suitability and ethical criteria prospective WorldTour teams need to meet but these are unlikely be a problem for either of the well-established squads. The knock-on effect is a problem, however, for the two current WorldTour outfits who sit below the waterline in 19th and 20th.

At the time of writing these two teams are Lotto-Soudal and Israel-Premier Tech, thanks to the diligent work of The Inner Ring who provides an updated ranking every week. With the UCI stipulating that from next year a maximum of 18 teams will be WorldTour, that would see both of the aforementioned WorldTour squads lose their top tier status.

What would this mean for Lotto and Israel-Premier Tech?

Lotto-Soudal have been flirting with the drop zone for the majority of the season and the situation could end up getting very messy. The team is already in rocky waters after the Belgian government passed laws to ban gambling advertisement, which will see their eponymous Lotto title sponsor phased out, while another long-term backer in Soudal are also switching allegiances to Patrick Lefevere’s Quick-Step. Meanwhile, there has been upheaval behind the scenes with various senior staff either being removed from their post or quitting, while in Tim Wellens they have a successful stalwart who is considering a move away from the team he turned pro with a decade ago.

More worryingly, should the team get relegated, a number of their riders have clauses in their contracts releasing them from the team if the squad drops to ProTeam level. Running a top-tier team is hard enough without the prospect of relegation and the unravelling it could bring to an organisation.

Back to the broader picture. Nothing is ever perfect, especially in bike racing, but the weighting of the points scoring does seem to give other squads a leg up while penalising the likes of Lotto-Soudal and how they’ve set up their squad.

Take the most recent weekend of racing. Arkéa-Samsic scored nearly 450 points with two riders on the podium in the 1.Pro Tro-Bro Léon, while Thomas De Gendt’s stage win at the Giro d’Italia may only end up accounting for a measly five. Yes, five. That’s because the ranking only takes into account the team’s 10 highest scoring riders. With Florian Vermeersch Lotto-Soudal’s previously 10th-ranked rider with 95 points accrued so far this year, Thomas De Gendt’s 100 points for his Giro stage victory merely displaces his compatriot and adds 5 points to their total tally.

With a star sprinter in Caleb Ewan and the lead-out that accompanies him, Lotto-Soudal have put a lot of their eggs in the Australian’s basket. Put simply, they need him to perform. Although stage wins at Grand Tours might play better for sponsors and also be Ewan’s main goal, in terms of cold, hard points the 100 on offer doesn’t even compare to those on offer for a one-day 1.Pro victory at 120 points.

Alongside Ewan, a reasonable chunk of the team’s budget has been spent on the likes of Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb, who between them have delivered three wins since the start of 2020 – when these points started to count. The same can be said for the amount Israel – Premier Tech have spent on Chris Froome when they could have instead bought a number of riders readymade to deliver results, which this new system rewards over attempting to rehabilitate the greatest Grand Tour racer of the past decade.

Teams such as BikeExchange-Jayco and EF Education EasyPost hover perilously just above the relegation zone and risk being dragged into the scrap to avoid demotion.

For Lotto-Soudal, much remains the same in terms of how they operate. They won’t change the way they race, but a slight alteration has been made to targeting races where points are on offer, according to the squad’s British rider Matthew Holmes.

“It’s definitely changed the race calendar but they don’t talk to us about points, we just want to win the biggest races,” Holmes told CyclingTips matter of factly. “The team hasn’t really changed the way we ride.”

“It’s a bit of a silly system,” he continued, offering his opinion of the situation. “It is what it is but we’re not going to change anything unless it comes down…we were joking it might come down to the Tour of Guangxi at the end of the year and it’ll be the A-team going to China fighting for points but for now it’s alright.”

The Tour of Guangxi being raced like the Tour de France would certainly be a great experience for fans, but a very unpopular turn of events for riders at the end of a long season.

Of course, the riders and teams involved in the relegation battle are unlikely to be fans of the system, so what about some more neutral judgement from the peloton?

“Of course, this team isn’t part of the conversation, we don’t have to worry about it,” Quick-Step AlphaVinyl’s James Knox told CyclingTips, his team sitting atop the three-year rankings.

“But hearing what the discussion is for some of the other guys, some of the other teams, it feels like it’s starting to get a little bit silly, a little bit petty.”

“It’s not like football where there’s a whole backlog of teams striving to move forward and who have the resources, it requires resources anyway to be in the top level of this sport, for all the costs, all the racing, all the salaries of the riders, everything like that.”

In football, promotion to the top tier comes with an automatic financial windfall via TV rights. In cycling, there is no such guarantee. WorldTeam status guarantees entry to the Tour de France, which can help pull in sponsors, but it’s not a guaranteed thing.

For Knox, inequities like the fact that riding to a mostly forgettable 60th overall at the Tour de France counts for as much as a hard-won fifth on a Tour stage doesn’t catalyse competitiveness.

“I just think the way this points system works it’s not really necessarily catered towards trying to win the biggest events,” he explained. “It’s just going after points, which for me, it does seem for me a bit unintentionally negative in terms of the actual racing.”

Team BikeExchange-Jayco boss Matt White is another who has raised eyebrows at the points system being stacked in favour of one-day races, and with his star rider Simon Yates’ GC bid at the Giro d’Italia coming unstuck on the Blockhaus stage, the Australian squad may have to change tack as they sit just above the relegation zone, a mere 700 points clear of Lotto-Soudal.

While the relegation battle provides a secondary narrative to who won the bike race, seeing teams tactically racing for high placings rather than putting it all on the line in a no guts no glory display takes away from the off-the-bike peril the prospect of relegation seeks to add.

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