[Thanks for coming back to the Cafe, I took a bit of a break from writing the past month. But the 2023 season is functionally getting underway now, with Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel joining Tom Pidcock at the cyclocross races... the posturing begins now, and doesn’t end until the peloton reaches the Roubaix velodrome! Anyway, let the fun begin.]
This offseason the usual cycling media suspects will think of clever ways to assess the offseason and the team, a number of which we were doing ten years ago and don’t feel like doing anymore... but I’ll probably fall back into a few of those traps this winter. But to kick things off, I want to take a completely different view, which I hope will make sense by the end. I want to see if I can capture the hierarchy of cycling by using the Sumo ranking system, a/k/a the banzuke.
Wait, Sumo Wrestling?
Technically the Japanese word “Sumo” includes the wrestling part. And yes! Sumo is an incredibly cool sport once you get to know it and get over the shocking body type stuff, to the point where it becomes yet another fascinating part of the strategy. But my point isn’t to sell you on watching sumo. I just want to borrow their ranking system.
Why Would We Do This?
The quick answer is because sumo uses a ranking system that is a mix of recency and lifetime achievement to sell the product. The origins of sumo are as old as Japan itself, and documents from as far back as 712 CE described celestial Japanese lore as allowing control over the islands to be decided in a sumo match between two gods, Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata, won by the former with an arm-crushing technique which gave him (?) control over the province of Izumo. From this and so much of Japanese culture, which is big on traditional ways in general and valuing age and experience in particular — see anyone with “sensei” attached to their name — it stands to reason that the modern sport of sumo would rank its athletes by something beyond last month’s results.
Cycling, however, uses a pretty strict, what have you done for me this year? system of ranking. Given how fitness works, it’s not a terrible way of doing business, but maybe this thought experiment of trying to impose a longer-term, meritocratic system on cycling will be enlightening in some way.
[Side note: I do have some questions going in about how to handle team elements, which are often a key part of an individual cyclist’s success or failure. Sumo includes a team system of sorts — every athlete belongs to a beya, or stable of wrestlers who train and fight together literally every day when there isn’t a tournament happening, and in tournaments guys don’t fight their stablemates except in championship tie-breakers. But on the dohyo (ring) it’s truly an individual sport, so cycling might not be a perfect fit in this respect.]
OK, Fine. If We Are Doing This, How Does It Work?
Getting down to it, I will briefly explain the rankings of Grand Sumo in Japan. It resembles the UCI in that the top-flight Japanese competition is not the only system on the planet for people in the sport (there are amateur sumo associations everywhere these days), but it’s by far the most important, so its rankings are effectively the worldwide standard.
In Japan, there are multiple divisions. The Makuuchi is basically the World Tour; the Juryo is similar to pro-continental (second class but athletes can move back and forth), and the Makushita, Sandanme, Jonidan and Jonokuchi divisions descend from there, the last one being for beginners coming out of amateur high school and college programs. Most of this post will dwell on the Makuuchi level.
Every Honbasho — the six grand tour-style, two-week tournaments held each year — starts with the Banzuke, the rankings for that tournament. With two exceptions, the top “champion” ranks, each athlete sees his position on the banzuke move up or down just before each Basho based on his performance in the last tournament. If you won 8 or more of your 15 matches last time, you will at least hold your ranking in the next tournament, and are likely to move up (with bigger leaps for better records). If you fall below that break-even threshold, your ranking will drop accordingly. But it’s all relative to other guys, you can be leapfrogged by breakout stars; or if everyone around you has the same record, movement up or down the banzuke gets clogged with traffic. Oh, note that the only way to hold your ranking is to show up and win. Hurt? Sick? Suspended for bad behavior? Too bad. If you can’t get in the ring, you can’t hold your ranking, though the reason why gets taken into account when deciding on the severity of your demotion. [Covid has led to some never-before levels of leniency.]
Breaking down the top division, at the very top of the individual rankings in Makuuchi is the Yokozuna (some of these terms you have probably heard). Yokozuna means grand champion, and once an athlete attains this level, he holds that rank on every banzuke for the rest of his career. To become yokozuna the athlete must first attain the next ranking down (Ozeki) and then win two consecutive tournament championships, or come so close to doing so that the Yokozuna Deliberation Council (YDC) becomes convinced he is worthy of a title that will anoint him a champion until he cuts off his topknot and retires. The voting can be subjective but it’s a way of saying “we will never stop thinking of you as one of the greatest.” Like dictators and supreme court justices, you may technically hold the position for life, but if you lose the people’s confidence, you will be pressured to retire. You can bet that the Council tries to weed out guys who lack the dignity to hang it up when they can’t meet the standard. The system more or less works.
The next level is, like I said, Ozeki — champion, but subject to demotion after two consecutive losing records. You can go 0-15 and then 8-7 and retain your Ozeki standing, but if you go 7-8 twice in a row, your Ozeki rank is gone. But like Yokozuna, it too is decided by a deliberations committee, and they don’t hand out the rank unless you have proven yourself over two or three consecutive tournaments by posting exceptional records against top competition. To give you some idea how elite the top ranks are, right now, of the roughly 550 “rikishi” (wrestlers at all ranks) in grand sumo, there is one Yokozuna and one Ozeki, having just seen two other Ozeki get bounced down.
Next comes Sekiwake and Komusubi. Taken together with Ozeki and Yokozuna, these are the sanyaku ranks, the ones with special names. But Sekiwake and Komusubi have no immunity from demotion, their rankings come and go with their record in the last tournament, except that a Sekiwake or Komusubi who goes 7-8 might not drop much at all — these are still proven winners. Also the sanyaku all wrestle each other, plus a few more guys from the next level of ranking. Which is to say, they have the hardest pathway to a winning record.
The rest of the the makuuchi is ranked #1 maegashira, #2 maegashira, #3 and so on. There are two each of these, down to either #16 or 17 maegashira, and that’s it for the top division. The #1-4 maegashira ranks get thrown into the “Joi” with the sanyaku as guys who will fight the top wrestlers. Everyone from Maegashira 5 on down is fighting mostly guys of a lower ranking. If a #8 maegashira goes 12-3, that’s cool, but he can’t expect to pass by guys in the Joi who went 9-6 because those guys fought the best competition and he didn’t. So these cutoff points matter. If a guy gets moved from Maegashira 7 to #3, then it’s an audition at the very top level to see if he’s Joi material, or better. The answer is usually no, and he can expect to bounce back down to the rank-and-file level if he can’t get that 8th win.
At the bottom of the makuuchi are guys who, if they have a losing record, will get relegated to Juryo, like European soccer, while the top Juryo ranks will get bumped up to makuuchi if they do well. That goes for the rest of the divisions, each of which is just a numerical ranking (juryo 1, juryo 2...). From mid makuuchi to the lowest rung, guys move up and down with no special consideration beyond their previous rank and tournament performance. Win and advance, or lose and fall back.
And Now... The 2023 Cycling Banzuke!
Congratulations on making it all the way to this part of the post! Or if you hit the tl;dr point, good job skipping ahead. Let’s start the ranking. Again, the question is this: if we were to overlay this type of short-and-long-term ranking system on the sport of cycling, how would the rankings themselves shake out heading into the 2023 Cycling season? Like this...
There should be at least two, maybe three, active Yokozuna in cycling right now, Tadej Pogačar, Chris Froome, and I think Mark Cavendish. Plus we say goodbye to a retiring Yokozuna in Vincenzo Nibali.
- Pogačar would surely have achieved the rank of Yokozuna with his victory in the 2021 Tour de France. His 2019 Vuelta a España would have rocketed him up into the Joi, coming as it did after a year’s worth of strong performances. This rapid advancement can be very tricky, because the banzuke is crowded with great athletes and the YDC needs to be sure about a guy before giving him the golden ticket. But it’s not unheard-of, and Pogs’ remarkable results would have merited a tryout at the top level by then. In 2020 he would have easily made Ozeki after winning the Tour de France. Sure, it was a weird year, but there would be no downplaying this achievement, coming as it did against a great rider like his countryman Roglič. He would have then rather emphatically been promoted to Yokozuna following his second Tour win, in part due to his continued excellence in early 2021, which included wins at the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. By the end of his second Tour win, there was absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind about his greatness, age nothwithstanding.
- Froome would have been promoted to Yokozuna in 2015. His 2013 Tour de France win, following a 2012 season where he was second in France and fourth at the Vuelta, would have easily earned him promotion to Ozeki. He also won the Dauphiné in 2013, and there might have been some temptation to bump him straight to the top then, but I doubt it, particularly given his rather sudden rise in 2012 which would have had him starting from lower down the list. Also, crashing out of the 2014 Tour would have interrupted his Yokozuna campaign — which must be sustained for a certain time to succeed — though the 2014 Vuelta second and dominant performances in 2015 would have put him quickly back on track to the top, clinched beyond doubt by the second Tour win.
And Froome would still hold the rank, though the ice underneath him would be rapidly thinning. Yokozuna are given long leashes for injury, in part because of the incredible toll on their bodies that it takes to reach the rank in the first place — years of fighting and lugging around as much weight as possible, to the distress of every joint in the lower body. But Froome has been healthy, we think, and now seems sort of over the hill, bypassed by the younger generation like he was standing still. His third at Alpe d’Huez last summer was a hint that all is not lost, though, and under the sumo system that sort of performance should buy him one more year at the top before the calls for his retirement would come on loud and clear.
Oh, and while he’s off the banzuke now, we would for sure be discussing the topknot cutting/retirement ceremony of outgoing Yokozuna Vincenzo Nibali. This is another easy call. Nibali would have ascended to the sport’s highest rank no later than his Tour de France victory in 2014. In 2010, Nibali took third in the Giro and won the Vuelta, which would have vaulted him into the sanyaku, but not quite the Ozeki level, given the lack of dramatic results prior to then. From there he got second at the 2011 Giro and third at the 2012 Tour, which would have certainly gained him promotion to Ozeki. That was followed by a dominant Giro win and a near miss at the Vuelta in 2013... close to Yokozuna but not quite. The 2014 Tour would have been a slam-dunk Yokozuna case though. Yes, there would have been some squirming around Nibali making rank before Froome, but this is a good example of how different the banzuke is — Nibali simply had a couple years’ head start on Froome as an elite winner. Ascending the rankings takes time.
Nibali’s post-promotion career would have been classic Yokozuna material. The variety of wins, often through cleverness and persistence, would have been eaten up by sumo-oriented cycling fans. Popularity counts, as do perceived disadvantages overcome — in sumo, the fans all love an undersized fighter, especially one who achieves one of the top two ranks. Nibali’s public perception, along with a nice steady diet of memorable wins, would have made him the most beloved Yokozuna of the last decade.
Last but not least... I think there would be a final, fourth, maybe outgoing Yokozuna Mark Cavendish, and I think the moment he was promoted would have been on the heels of his World Title in 2011. In 2009 and 2010, he won five Tour stages each, plus three Vuelta stages in 2010 along with a points title. I think that gets him to Ozeki, and his run of greatness in 2011 — the Tour points comp and stage wins, the three straight Champs-Élysées wins, the 20 total victories piling up, then the coup at Worlds — that looks like a sprinters’ Yokozuna campaign. Unlike Nibali, Cavendish might have faced some criticism for his behavior on occasion and pressure to retire in the lean years, all of which he would have silenced with his remarkable 2021 rebound. So while we might be down to one truly active Yokozuna, we would have started the season with a classic Tour champ, a jack of all trades, a sprinter, and a young phenom — just a wonderful lineup for that exalted ranking.
This is the most interesting part of the discussion, I think? Here are my Ozeki: Wout Van Aert, Jonas Vingegaard, Primož Roglič, Mathieu van der Poel, and Remco Evenepoel. The inclusion of classics guys here raises the question, can you demonstrate the convincing, consistent quality that can get you over the Ozeki hump with one-day results? Yes, but it’s not easy, and if we liken it to sumo, a string of consistently strong performances in the classics would be more or less like the consecutive high win totals that an Ozeki needs in sumo.
Why he’s Ozeki: Insanely consistent performance. Van Aert is the guy who keeps climbing the banzuke, never backsliding, and bumping up to the champions level with a mix of victories and outstanding teamwork. Van Aert would have clinched his promotion to Ozeki in 2021, either with his win in the Amstel Gold Race or, more likely, his series of Tour de France stage wins that included a sprint, a mountain stage and a time trial. Any one of those would have extended his run of top performances, and his intangible qualities would have given the Ozeki promotion council no reason to hesitate. And he would have done nothing to cost him the rank since.
Why he’s not Yokozuna: He has just one Monument win. So does Matej Mohorič, Dylan van Baarle, Kasper Asgreen, Bob Jungels, and a few others. And it’s Milano-Sanremo. The top classics rider right now is arguably van der Poel, at two Ronde van Vlaanderen victories. Yokozuna is a high enough bar for classics guys of any level, let alone guys who aren’t the very top.
Why he’s Ozeki: His Tour de France win, coming after a second place the previous year, got him the promotion. Vingegaard would have made it to the Joi in spring of 2021, a promising climber shooting up the rankings with a series of wins and top finishes in shorter stage races. Then second at the Tour would have moved him to Sekiwake. Another high level spring this year would have kept him in prime position for Ozeki, clinched emphatically at the Tour this summer.
Why he’s not Yokozuna: It hasn’t been long enough, nor has he beaten the best often enough for the Yokozuna deliberations council to even start in on his case. A second run of domination in 2023 would probably be enough though, given the Tour’s exalted status.
Why he’s Ozeki: Steady progress, starting with some very high results in 2017, then a tour de force in 2018 including fourth at the Tour, putting him in the sanyaku with ease. Finally, third at the Giro and victory in the Vuelta — plus so many other wins — would have been more than enough quality and consistency for Ozeki promotion.
Why he’s not Yokozuna: Also very clear — the shocking Tour loss in 2020, followed by the two DNFs. Twice he bounced back to win the Vuelta, putting him right back in line for Yokozuna, only to fail the final step. By sumo ranking, Rogs would be a high-level Ozeki, but at the same time the consecutive Tour and Vuelta DNFs would also make him a candidate for demotion if 2023 turns sour. His career should be celebrated for his achievements more than it is decried for the near misses, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
Van der Poel
Why he’s Ozeki: The second Ronde win would have done it. Prior to that, vdP was just getting going in 2019 at the top level, those Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold shockers having put him in the lower sanyaku. Once he won de Ronde in 2020, he would go right to sekiwake, a step away from promotion. But his 2021 campaign, first in Strade Bianche but then second in Flanders, would have made for a shaky Ozeki case, and his rapid advancement would have made the committee nervous. Only with his greatness fully back on display again at 2022 Flanders (after 3rd in MSR and 1st in Dwars) would the committee have felt sure about moving him up.
Why he’s not Yokozuna: The bar is high for a guy who doesn’t climb too much. He also suffered a few interruptions, particularly his back injury at the 2021 Olympics, which would have robbed him of any Yokozuna momentum. But the quality of his wins, often dominant displays, would make the YDC stay hot on his case heading into 2023.
Why he’s Ozeki: The 2022 run. Previous World Tour wins in 2019 San Sebastian and 2020 Pologne, coupled with his usual mastery of minor stage races, would have had Evenepoel moving steadily up the rankings. The constant winning would have gotten him to no worse than Maegashira 1 to start this season.
From there, we know what happened: more stage races, then a Monument, then San Sebastian again, followed by the Vuelta win. That clinches Ozeki. Tacking on a World Championship puts Evenepoel on the precipice of Yokozuna.
Why he’s not Yokozuna: The suddenness of his rise, just a year removed from a campaign that had people questioning his courage, would leave the council more than a little hesitant to rush into anything. Also, the Vuelta is not the Giro which is not the Tour. LBL is top of the food chain, which helps a lot, along with the world title. But he’s one more mega-result away from a lightning fast promotion. Or alternatively, two more years of what he’s been doing. Reaching a higher plane, or baking in his current one a bit more, should be all it takes.
The Rest of the Joi
Sekiwake: Jai Hindley, Alexander Vlasov, Mads Pedersen
Komusubi: Richard Carapaz, Jasper Philipsen, Pello Bilbao, Fabio Jakobsen
Maegashira 1: Dylan van Baarle, Arnaud De Lie
Maegashira 2: Simon Yates, Pello Bilbao
Maegashira 3: Matej Mohorič, Ethan Hayter
Maegashira 4: Arnaud Démare, Stefan Küng
Like I said, all of these rankings are based on recent results of riders who, over the years, had moved themselves to the sport’s uppermost echelon. A few notes:
- Hindley, a rather convincing grand tour winner, has begun his Ozeki campaign, but the momentum is petering out, just like it did in 2020. He’s someone to keep an eye on but like sumo, the top of the cycling pyramid is pretty crowded.
- Egan Bernal is another rider worth discussing. To me, he is a former Ozeki who has been demoted out of the Joi... for now. With both a Tour de France and Giro d’Italia win, there is little doubt that he has the quality to take him to the Ozeki level, which almost always suggests at least some Yokozuna potential if things keep up. Anyway, he would have made Ozeki after the Giro d’Italia win in 2021. His Tour win in 2019 would have moved him well into the Joi and kicked off an Ozeki run, which would then have seen it slowed down... but never really stopping. Bernal was struggling with back pain that messed up his 2020, which was messed up anyway for everyone. Then a strong start in 2021 would have revived it all, with the Giro win being more than convincing enough. But after that, having all of 2022 wiped out means that at some point the council would have been forced to demote Bernal. Rules are rules, and anyway an injury-demoted Ozeki can just bounce right back when he’s healthy and winning again, so don’t weep for Bernal too much just yet.
- Finally, there are the other old guys. Alejandro Valverde would have risen to Ozeki no later than his 2009 Vuelta win, but then been demoted in 2011 when he was suspended for his connection to Operacion Puerto, and probably kept away from re-promotion for the rest of his storied, consistent, but thoroughly unloved career. It’s not my favorite subject, and it speaks for itself. Let’s move on...
- ...to Philippe Gilbert, the last rider worth discussing. Like Valverde and Nibali, he would have clipped his topknot sometime in the past couple weeks, once the season’s end died down and he had time to arrange a proper ceremonial cutting. But from what rank would he be stepping down? My call is former Ozeki. Gilbert was a strong rider and winner dating back to 2006, but not in any great volume until his remarkable fall campaign in 2009, when he won Paris-Tours and Lombardia (plus Piemonte) in rapid succession. That’s not an Ozeki run, but it’s sanyaku material for sure. Then in 2011, his Ozeki promotion would have been clinched, having sustained some quality through 2010 and then gone berserk in 2011 with the Brabantse Pijl-Amstel-Flèche-Liège quadruple success never before achieved. He’d have remained a beloved Ozeki for his world title in 2012, and there would have been some Yokozuna debate in 2017 after his Flanders/Amstel pair of wins. My hunch is that he would have been controversially denied due to his getting up in years — not a good candidate to defend the rank indefinitely — and the YDC would have gotten a bit more heat after his Paris-Roubaix win in 2019. But to clinch the top rank, I think Gilbert would have required another bigger, sustained campaign of greatness, not these occasional spikes in form. He’d have generated quite a lot of debate, more so than anyone else on this list. After 2019 he would have eventually stumbled out of the rank, though possibly not until this year’s quiet end.
Was that useful? I do think there is something more profound in this long-range style of ranking than what we use in cycling, and I hope that came across and didn’t get bogged down in all of the foreign terminology. If this works, maybe I’ll make an annual banzuke.