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Minor Races mean Aggressive Racing

The last ten days have been hard for two reasons. Firstly, having recently moved house I was without the Internet for the most prolonged period of my life since the 1990s, it was almost liberating…almost. But secondly, it has been the final period of the cycling off season. From now until October there is rarely two days back to back when there isn’t a professional race to be keeping track of, which is fantastic.

I’ve been reading Stephen Roche’s book The Agony and the Ecstasy recently, and in it he has this to say:

There are no small wins in professional cycling. Any victory is important. Sometimes the ones that people consider small are the hardest to win. In the big race the strong men watch each other very closely and the race is well controlled. In the smaller race, half the bunch are not interested but every member of the other half is desperate to win. Controlling a race with sixty riders striving to win is an impossibility. This can happen in the smaller races.

Sometimes the smaller races, especially those which only allow for six riders per team, can be incredibly aggressive and disjointed which makes for very exciting racing. The Tour of Britain last year, even if the British press would have us believe it is the greatest race of all time, did in fact make for great viewing (helped in no small part by the adventurous riding of Dan Martin). Tirreno-Adriatico last year was riveting, with the G.C. coming down to a hot spot sprint on the final day of racing. Two of the best one day races last year were the lesser known Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. There’s a lot more to cycling than the Grand Tours and the classics.

Races that appear earlier in the season often display non Pro Tour teams seizing the iniatitive in order to impress ASO in an attempt to gain the most coveted of wild card invites, to the Tour de France. Last year the decision on which teams would compete in the 2010 Tour de France was announced on 30th March. Before this announcement, teams had the chance to take part in races such as the Volta a Catalunya, Gent-Wevelgem, Het Nieuwsblad, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan San Remo as well as ASO’s own races Paris-Nice, Tour of Qatar, Tour of Oman and the Criterium International.

But this year, the four teams to be granted wild card entry to the Tour de France will be announced before the end of January. This leaves two weeks and very few opportunities for teams looking to impress. Both Cofidis and Bretagne-Schuller will both only have raced the one day GP Cycliste la Marseillaise before this announcement. Teams like Europcar, Skil-Shimano an FDJ will have only raced in either the Tour de Langkawi or La Tropicale Amissa Bongo. That’s it, not much of a platform to prove your worth.

Already there are reports that the Geox-TMC team of former Tour winner Carlos Sastre and multiple Grand Tour winner, Denis Menchov, will not be at the Tour in July. Perhaps the fact that the Geox-TMC squad don’t start their racing season until the Tour of Qatar, after the Tour wild card announcement, is a sign that they have already resigned themselves to being absent from the Tour in July.

Instead of Tour places, riders instead seem focused on securing UCI ranking points for themselves. This is due to the new UCI ranking points system now in place to apparently achieve Pat McQuaid’s oft stated goal of having the best riders in the best teams at the best races. Even though this year’s Tour teams will be decided in the next two weeks, gaining UCI points now will help whatever team a rider is on gain entry to next year’s Tour. Due to the fact that any points won are attributed to a rider and not a team leads to a worry that there will be a flurry of selfish riding in order to secure personal futures, rather than riding for the good of the team. A problem arising directly from one of cycling’s biggest quirks – a team sport in which an individual wins. But individuals chasing UCI points for personal gain is not a new problem.

I recently read an article in the May 2003 issue of Cycle Sport magazine in which the problems of the UCI ranking system are discussed. Until recently, UCI ranking did contribute to which teams made it into the Tour de France, but ultimately the organisers had the final say (although I doubt it’s much different now). Dirk de Wolf was a fan of the points system:

How can you expect me to be against the points system when it permits me to earn lots more money? My position in the ranking enables my team to ensure they will get in to certain races. That gives me a lot more power when it comes to negotiating.

This attitude is all well and good when you’re a strong rider like de Wolf who is capable of winning a monument classic. But what about the lesser riders and domestiques? The Cofidis team confounded this problem when they decided to link the wages of their riders to their ranking in the UCI points system. An unnamed rider agent said at the time:

Personally, I’ve found [the system of relating wages to ranking] wrecks team spirit and makes it harder to sign younger riders with no UCI points.

In the same Cycle Sport article, Sean Kelly suggests a solution when discussing the leader of the Cofidis team, David Millar and the pay-for-points system ruining the spirit within the team:

A way around the problem is for David to make a special agreement with two or three riders and say, ‘Whichever team I go to I’ll take you with me’.

Personally, I think this solution may end up being even more devastating to team spirit, with the potential for factions to form within a team, destroying any sort of cohesion altogether. Kelly goes on to say:

 

It’s difficult to expect riders to race for you when they want to get in the breaks [to seek their own UCI points]. If I were a rider now I wouldn’t like it. It’s better for spectators and commentators though, as you get very good racing and more attacks.

Which gives us the main reason to watch the Tour Down Under this week. The prospect of banking early season UCI ranking points is a big one. Riders who are on form will be looking to take advantage in what will probably be the race with the highest proportion of non-race-fit riders we’re likely to see this year. There’s also the fact that UCI ranking points form the basis of how the size of the national teams for the World Championships is decided. Thus, not only may there be in-house squabbles about who gets to go on the attack in search for points, we could also see cross-team allegiances forming based on nationality throughout the season.

Mark Cavendish went to Geelong last year with only two team mates. This years Worlds in Copenhagen is apparently going to be one for the sprinters. Cavendish will want to be there with a full compliment of nine riders, as will British Cycling. So, will British Cycling encourage Cavendish’s likely team mates in October to help him where possible throughout the season? Of course it’s entirely likely that Cavendish doesn’t need the help. Although, there’s plenty of sprinters in Adelaide this week who will want their say. As the finally retiring Lance Armstrong said yesterday:

You will not see sprinting like this until July. So take a good look at it because it’s gonna be six months until you see it again.

Personally, I can’t wait.

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