Friday, March 28, 2014

UCI revised calendar: who makes the 1A-1B race cut?

UCIThe UCI reforms appear to be moving forward, with a goal of professionalizing professional cycling. The reforms have been summarized in various stories (like this one) but the primary source is the UCI's Info Reform newsletter.

It's good stuff, and while San Francisco has gotten some recent insight into realpolitik, so far I've been really happy with Cookson's new term at the head of the UCI. Things honestly appear to be moving in the correct direction.

A big issue is the professionalism of professional cycling. Professional bike racing has tended to be ruled by chaos as much as any formal organization. Historically the race promoters have called the principal shots. They want to invite who they want to invite to their races. That typically meant balancing considerations for attracting the best teams, local teams, teams with charismatic riders, and notably in the case of the Tour of California, teams who bring big money race sponsors. It's all been a mess. If I go to a perspective sponsor and say "here's my business proposition: you pay X and your return is Y, where Y >> X", the sponsor will view it as a favorable deal. But a big part of Y is getting in big races, and if I don't know what races I'll be in, then the X the sponsor is willing to pay is much diminished. That means less money for teams, less money for cycling, and almost by definition bad for the sport. Virtually no other team sport is ruled by such caprice.

There's been various attempts to remedy the situation, including points systems where teams would add up points scored by riders. But this has had disastrous effects on the team aspect of racing. If there's a 240 km race, with 9 guys on a team, and 8 of the guys bury themselves so 1 can win, the one gets the points, while the 8 get Strava kudos but at the end of the season good luck with that contract thing: they'd be a liability to the teams which hire them because to win the Tour de France you need to be in the Tour de France and to be in the race you need individual rider points. It was corrosive.

To help address some of these major issues Jonathan Vaughters proposed a 10-point plan for professional racing. It all makes sense. But Vaughters was not well received by the previous two UCI heads, Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid. Indeed, while Vaughters called for transparency, few have used the work "transparent" in conjunction with either of these two men. But then, just when it looked as if McQuaid's attempt to twist the rules and gain a third term as UCI head might just succeed, Brian Cookson appeared and, undeterred by McQuaid's political games to win the favor of third-world delegates in the UCI vote, won the job.

Now the UCI and Vaughters and his supporters seem much more aligned. The UCI is moving much more in the directions proposed in that 10-point plan. And the that UCI's Info Reform newsletter is the latest proof.<

I won't try to summarize it: no need, as it's completely clear. But there's a few key aspects worth comment.

One is how the entry to the top races is gained. Teams can be level 1A, 1B, 2, or 3. There's 16 teams at the 1A level, the top level in cycling. Eventually, you get to the IA level by being the top 1B team or else being one of the top 15 of the 16 1A teams. Retaining all but one of the top teams provides stability while still putting a check on team quality. The top 1B team can be promoted as a replacement. This generates competition among the 1B teams for this privilege. Of course, teams come and go, so I'm not sure what happens if 1A teams dissolve. Hopefully they dissolve a lot less, and instead change ownership, more consistent with how other professional sports teams evolve.

The 1A teams are ranked based on how they do in 120 1A-level race days, into each of which they are guaranteed entry. Meanwhile, 1B teams are ranked based on how they do in 50 1B-level race days, into which they are guaranteed entry. That's 170 days of racing at the top level. These days include the days allocated to grand tours. To avoid conflict, at most one 1A or 1B level race can occur on a given day. This allows 1A and 1B level teams to be competitive with their top riders in every race, never (in principle) forced to split teams between two races while still completing the entire schedule. And this creates the curious question of which races make the top level.

Of course, the Grand Tours make the cut: the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, and Vuelta d'Espana, each 23 days or 21 days depending on if you count rest days, will be 1A. Additionally, the "monuments" and other top-level classics will be 1A: Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Giro di Lombardia are the monuments of cycling and will of course be 1A, as will I suspect Gent-Wevelgem, Amstel Gold, San Sebastian Classic, and Paris-Tours. I'd also expect Fleche-Wallone to be there. That's 11 more days. We're up to maybe 77 1A races: still 43 days left to allocate to 1A, 50 to 1B.

The challenge comes when we get to the one-week stage races. The issue here is overlap. Paris Nice? Of course it must be there. But what about Tirreno Adriatico? These races are considered parallel paths to Milan San Remo fitness. Annually the game is which of the races will produce the Milan San Remo's winner. Paris-Nice starts and finishes a few days earlier, but they substantially coincide. Under these rules, if they are going to retain their roles as Milan San Remo preparation, then they will need to stay overlapped and that means at most one can be 1A or 1B, at least one of the two relegated to level 2. This would be hard to comprehend.

Then there's the Volta Catalunya, which is finishing now. This is World-Tour level stage race, providing key preparation for the Giro d'Italia, which starts in May. But it overlaps with the early races of the Belgian classics season, including Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, and even Gent-Wevelgem. How do you resolve this conflict?

Then there's the Tour of California and the Giro d'Italia. It's clear who wins this one.

The UCI Worldtour calendar is here. While it generally avoids such conflicts, the ones which remain are difficult to resolve, especially since the choice isn't 1A or 1B, but 1A or 2, since 1A and 1B conflicts aren't allowed.

It's not tragic if a race is class 2. 1A and 1B teams can still participate. It's just that these races will not count toward 1A and 1B standings, and so the races can't expect to be a focus for these teams. This is an issue for the Tour of California, which wants to attract a top squad from teams with strong US riders.

Actually, one correction. I'm calling the race classes 1A, 1B (combined to level 1), 2, and 3. That's not how the UCI labels them. They use classes: 1A, 1B, HC (beyond category), 1, and 2. This is obviously marketing spew. Come on: the third-ranked tier is "beyond category"? I'll stick with my enumeration for purposes of this blog post.

One more aspect worth mentioning: to determine initial entry into the 1A tier, rider points will be used, but only from the top 5 point-earning riders on each team. This is a compromise, leaving plenty of room for riders on teams whose focus isn't on scoring their own points but rather on aiding other members of the team in getting results. Cycling is a team sport, after all, despite the fact medals and prized are typically given to the top individuals more than the top teams. It isn't clear, however, how this point scheme will be applied in future years, or how new teams will be assigned. I suspect the same points scheme will be used for new teams.

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