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World Competition and Rankings: How Would You Do It?

[And yes, this is a VDS matter...]

It was only somewhat surprising that in my chat with Tyler Farrar the other day he didn't know he was fourth in the world in wins. He referred to UCI points, presumably using the World Calendar, which is a nice list of races but kind of skimming off the top. I was referring to tallies (and editorializing by crossing Jose Rujano off the list), which cover pretty much every race that you can think of, and which count wins as well as points. All are measures of success, but look absolutely nothing alike.

Cycling is forever tinkering with its meta-organization at the top level, looking for ways to measure the performances of riders and teams. The Pro Tour, in its initial form, was one of the most ambitious attempts ever to create a "Major League of Cycling" that fans in places like the US could understand. The concept was to separate, for once, the top level teams from the second tier, pit them against one another all year long over the most famous roads in the sport, and declare various winners. While hobnobbing with the Second Division was not strictly forbidden, and while the Pro Tour did not insist on total control of the startlists in such races, inclusion of non-Pro Tour teams was minimal. This was an exclusive club -- akin to US team sports, where the major and minor leagues never truly mingle, or like football/soccer worldwide, where they mingle occasionally but the dividing lines remain clear.

The effort failed for political reasons that nobody feels like rehashing, but more fundamentally for reasons having to do with the nature of Cycling. Teams build and survive by attracting sponsors, not by selling tickets. So when (inevitably) certain Pro Tour teams wound up having to feign interest in big races that would have mattered a lot more to the Second-Division squads whose space they took, the races and teams objected. Why should the Tour de France host an Italian team that just exhausted itself in the Giro and is sending a bunch of warm bodies to France, when teams like Agritubel or Vacansoleil could bring far more interest to the race and pay a year's worth of bills in the process?

The result is to mostly go back to the way things were. Most of the big races retain some latitude to determine who should be there. Big teams race with their smaller counterparts as often as ever. Pro Tour teams pay extra for a special Seal of UCI Approval and a quasi-guarantee to a slate of races, but the resulting competitions are of questionable value. The Pro Tour calendar is a small subset of the races that matter, and even the broader World Calendar misses out on plenty of important events (Omloop Het Nieuwsblad? Paris-Tours??) while including stuff like the Tour of Poland. In the process, the World Calendar named Astana the #1 team -- a bad joke to anyone following Columbia-HTC (85 wins!) or Saxo Bank. Or anyone who reads the CQRanking, where Astana were 6th in points and 14th in victories, trailing squads like Agritubel (since folded) and the Tabriz Petrochemical Team of Iran.

But if the UCI draws its lines too narrowly, surely CQRanking draws too broadly, using every race under the sun to rank Tabriz ahead of Astana or Rujano ahead of Farrar. Actually, that's just victories, their points system is more just, but IMHO it would be nice to look at points from the "races that matter," and with all due respect to the Vuelta a Venezuela, it just doesn't matter to me.

So how do you figure this? Last year we drew up the Virtual Directeur Sportif calendar, a list of 47 races from around the world, which was slightly expanded from the previous year. We tried to catch all the "races that matter," but inevitably during the year there were races people got excited about which were not on the list. So if you were to create a list of the "races that matter," how would you change our current calendar? In the process of answering this, think about why exactly a race matters. Because the big names are there? Because it's historic? Because the level of competition is usually high?

The purpose of this survey is to assist tinkering with the VDS. We may be able to use winter races somehow, although we will see. Anyway, thanks for your input.