Signs of desperation appearing in relegation dogfight

Team tactics said to be shifting as points scoring more important than trying to win the biggest races in relegation survival.

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For much of the season the WorldTour teams threatened with relegation sang from the same hymn sheet.

It wasn’t changing how they raced, they insisted, they didn’t think about points in the bus before the start but only about the usual business of trying to cross the finish line first.

As the final count draws near, however, the previously ironclad commitment to carry on like it was business as usual may be faltering.

Enric Mas, currently second overall at the ongoing Vuelta a España, says he would like to go out (uncharacteristically, it must be said) with all guns blazing in pursuit of the red jersey but that Movistar’s precarious hovering just above the relegation zone demands a more pragmatic approach.

“I would like to do an all or nothing,” Mas said in his rest day press conference of how he would ideally like to approach the last two weeks of this Spanish Grand Tour. “You have to be aware of the UCI points, that the team needs them to not drop down. Later we will see if it can be done, but I would love it.”

Between rock-bottom (of the WorldTour teams) Israel Premier-Tech on 13,082 points, next comes Lotto-Soudal on 13,847, Movistar on 14,135, BikeExchange-Jayco on 14,203 and EF Education EasyPost on 14,255. Both Cofidis and Arkéa-Samsic are also only a few hundred points further ahead than that after they lost Nairo Quintana’s Tour de France points.

Things are tight, although points scored at the Vuelta will only be added at the culmination of the race, meaning that a high-placing Enric Mas could swiftly move Movistar into relative safety.

For Israel-Premier Tech, the situation is looking more desperate. Dylan Teuns has been signed mid-season in the hope that the punchy Belgian rider can take some one-day race victories but has already made a point of saying publicly that he alone can’t turn around the team’s fortunes.

Mike Woods crashing out of the Vuelta also leaves a number of points on the table. The Canadian was almost certain to contest the myriad uphill stage finishes across three weeks of racing in Spain.

But the problem for Israel Premier-Tech is greater than most, as this season’s tally is also lagging behind ProTeam TotalEnergies, who would then take the guaranteed 2023 Grand Tour wildcards offered to the highest-scoring second division outfit.

Whispers within the peloton suggest that the Israeli squad have now taken the drastic measure of encouraging riders not to race to win but to get as many riders placing in the points as possible. When contacted by CyclingTips, Israel – Premier Tech told us that the team’s goal is to win and that will remain the main objective in every race.

Rather than a rumour to beat a struggling WorldTour squad over the head with, the fact that this tactic could even make sense within a sporting context speaks to the folly that has been built into the relegation and points-scoring system.

Another example: riders aren’t offering themselves up for selection for September’s Wollongong World Championships but instead staying in Europe to compete for UCI points for their embattled trade teams.

Then there’s the confusing way in which points have been allocated, mentioned multiple times already this season, which is now coming into clear view now.

On August 23, Lotto-Soudal scored 195 UCI points with first and third at the Egmont Cycling Classic courtesy of Arnaud De Lie and Jasper De Buyst. On that very same day at the Vuelta a España, Primož Roglič only gained 100 points for winning a stage against far superior opposition. With points only allocated to the top five places on Grand Tour stages (and a measly four points for fifth at that), there is a clear incentive to focus on scooping up points at smaller races.

The proof of a shifting of focus towards races such as Egmont for teams in need of points can be shown in ProCyclingStats’ startlist quality score. For the past 10 years the startlist quality at Egmont has mostly been between 80-130. This year it’s 293.

A complementary factor in this is having riders able to dominate these 1.1 one-day meets. Take Lotto-Soudal’s Arnaud De Lie, a 20-year-old sprinter in his debut WorldTour season. Not necessarily ready to take on Grand Tours and not demanding a spot in at least one three-week squad like other more established sprinters in the peloton. Therefore, he’s perfectly positioned to turn up at multiple one-day races and score highly over and over again. This season he’s won 9 races and scored a total of 1,219 points at the time of writing. 22% of Lotto’s 2022 points haul.

For fans of cycling, the relegation conundrum has added intrigue and narrative into a sport that can sometimes lack cohesive month-long story arcs. For the riders and teams within the maelstrom of potentially losing top tier status, a more logical set of rules without loopholes would likely leave less of a bitter taste in the mouth.

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