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Let’s Talk About...the World Tour

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And the World Rankings, or whatever the hell they’re called now.

Sagan World Tour Gala
Peter Sagan accepts the World Rankings title.
Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Can I make a confession? I haven’t watched a single minute of the Tour of Turkey. Even the fact that a guy from Carrick-On-Suir has won literally eighty per cent of the stages cannot compel me to switch on that bloody race, or highlights thereof (not to mention the fact that I don’t consider beating Edward Theuns and Simone Consonni a particularly huge achievement). This is not unusual — I think I watched five minutes of the final stage a couple of years ago, but throughout my time as a cycling fan I’ve had basically no interaction with this particular tour. I’ve never considered it a remote loss. But this year, the race got a lot more popular, due to its new World Tour Lite status, where a load of races paid for the dubious privilege of being able to invite all the top echelon of cycling teams, with the caveat that they would be free not to accept. This, obviously, expanded the World Tour calendar greatly, with events like the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, the Rund um den Finanzplatz, the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic joining the fray. Along with, of course, the Tours of Turkey and Guangxi.

It’s sort of difficult to guess how the thinking behind this exact sort of addition to the cycling calendar came about — elevation to the World Tour doesn’t automatically make a race into an event cared about by the majority of fans (just ask the GP Plouay and Cyclassics Hamburg) so I’d hesitate to say that it was an attempt to promote these particular races. Brian Cookson seemed to declare it as further globalisation of cycling, but really the only difference it makes to the global calendar is to tack some Asian races onto the start and end of the season and to make the Tour of California a slightly bigger distraction from the Giro. And while it expands the calendar, beyond doubt, most of the races that got upgraded really did not need the change in status. The whole thing seems very arbitrary.

Then again, I’m not going to be up in arms about it — there’s nothing wrong with a few more races being brought further into the public consciousness, however weird a combination it is. What I’m questioning is how much of an effect it’s had. It would have been very, very easy, with these reforms, to turn the cycling calendar into the properly bookended story that everyone who writes about these things seems to covet. Omloop is in there near the start, Lombardia is there near the end, sandwich whichever races you like in between them, et voila, you have quite a high number of happy cycling fans. You could even leave the Tour Down Under where it was as a bit of an early-season anomaly-forward slash-bit of fun. But that is not what it’s done. In fact, it’s made the cycling season even more confusing and obfuscated further where the season starts and where it ends. For example, I can see how the purists would be offended by the Abu Dhabi Tour, running at the same time as Omloop, being given basically equal status with the Belgian classic under this new system.

I am the furthest thing imaginable from a purist, so it really doesn’t bother me that I might have the chance to watch some extra cycling on the day of Omloop. Personally, I consider the cycling season to have started slightly beforehand, in that week of February with all the stage races, none of which are World Tour. So is it the job of the World Tour to decide where the season starts and where it ends? Let’s make the easiest possible comparison here: to tennis, whose season long competition is poetically also called the World Tour. This begins in Australia in January (sound familiar?) with some tournaments leading up to the major event of the Australian Open. It continues on throughout the season until it reaches its big, final event, played between the season’s top eight players. There is an incentive, all season, to get to this event, an incentive that cycling lacks.

This lacking, by the way, is not necessarily a bad thing. Cycling is simply a much harder sport to rank than tennis. Player A beats Player B in tournament C, Player A gets a mathematically fair amount of points. In cycling, however, if Rider D finishes sixth in an Belgian semi-classic with a very strong field, there’s no really fair way to rank his performance. That’s not to mention the idea that if Domestique E gets in the break in that race, attacks them with twenty kilometres out, gets caught with ten to go and pulls on the front to set up his teammate to win, then cracks and finishes five minutes back, there’s no way of scoring his performance, which is surely equal or better to a rider who does score points. This isn’t a new problem — since season-long rankings have been a thing, the incentive has been there for domestiques to hold back when working for their teammates in order to secure a few precious World Ranking points and maybe push up their salary for the next year.

There’s no real way to calculate for this. Nor is there really a way to calculate the difference between a sprinter winning the first bunch gallop of the Tour and the same sprinter turning up at the Vuelta six weeks later and winning by three bike lengths. Currently, the former option nets 120 points while the second gets you 100. Practically, this works out to mean that André Greipel got 125 points out of the Tour de France while Matteo Trentin went to the Vuelta, overtook Greipel’s number by stage four and went on to net 440. Is he a better sprinter than Greipel? Of course not, but the system that exists promotes good riders against weak fields. Which is, of course, extremely difficult to avoid. I am no cycling expert, but let me spitball an idea here:

How about this: a system in which races are not given points ahead of time, but their number of ranking points is calculated based on which high-ranking individuals finished at the top of the results sheet. For example, let’s take stage one of the Tour Down Under next year. Let’s say a neo-pro with no ranking points from last year wins, but Sagan finishes in second, and numerous others in the world’s top fifty find themselves in the top ten. This gains our neo-pro more ranking points than he would have gotten if the top ten were filled with less successful riders. For this to work, some kind of multiplier would have to be worked out where a maximum number of points were given for the highest-quality top ten, which would be deducted from when lower-ranked riders finished highly. I will not die on the hill of this theory, by the way, it’s just an idea for how the quality of field in a race would affect its outcome more than the perceived quality of the event before it has been run. I think most solutions would be better than the current situation, in which Greg Van Avermaet is going to finish the season as top-ranked rider, and everyone else is going to have to google that fact.

He will be crowned, of course, after the Tour of Guangxi, a race I, at least, have no intention of watching. Imagine that the world rankings were extremely close, and two or three riders had a chance of going top of the standings. Do you really think they’d turn up in China as November came closer? Some chance. If Lombardia, or even Paris-Tours, marked the end of the ranking events, there’s a decent chance there would be some real competition for the top spot. Ending the season with a new race, unenthusiastically attended by riders and fans alike, is a sure-fire way of ending the season with a resounding whimper.