Suddenly, everybody is talking about UCI points, so let us explain an important concept that even some people in the cycling industry are still unaware of – the complex World Tour promotion and relegation system.
At the end of 2018, the president of the UCI, David Lappartient, announced a profound reform of the UCI regulations, which came into force on January 1, 2020. The three main points of the UCI reform were:
- the current system of automatic wildcards for the best ProTeams of the previous year (currently Alpecin-Fenix and Arkea-Samsic);
- no more than 18 teams will be granted World Tour licences in 2023; and
- the allocation of WorldTour licences for three year cycles (2020-2022, 2023-2025, 2026-2028).
At the end of each three year period, every team that wishes to hold a World Tour licence must apply (or re-apply, in the case of existing World Tour teams) to the UCI. As this season is the last of the 2020-2022 triennium, the UCI will be reviewing applications and issuing licences for the next three year cycle commencing in 2023. But how does the UCI assess these applications?
There are defined criteria in the UCI rules for the assessment of licence applications, including expected things like financial solvency, ethical profile of the team (not sure how strictly this one is applied) as well as administrative and organisational criteria. However, if more than 18 teams apply for a WorldTour licence that meet such criteria, the applicants will also be subject to the application of the ‘sporting criterion’. According to the UCI regulations, the sporting criterion is:
The sporting criterion is evaluated with regard to the UCI world ranking for ‘men UCI teams – 3 years’, as defined in article 2.10.044.Art 2.15.011 of the UCI Cycling Regulations
The ‘UCI world ranking for men UCI teams – 3 years’ is calculated by adding together the UCI points of each team at the end of each year in the three year licence period. This sounds simple enough on its face, but the UCI world ranking for each calendar year is a complex beast in itself. Only the points from the top 10 riders from each team count each year. Points from national championships and international events count towards a team’s total (provided such points have been accrued by a top 10 rider). Points from a rider on a development team associated with a World Tour team do not count for the World Tour team even if the rider earns those points on the World Tour team.
The actual point allocation per race is also counter-intuitive, with one-day races receiving a heavy weighting of points compared to stages in stage races. For example, a UCI 1.1 race such as Clásica Jaén gives 40 points for 6th place whilst a Tour de France 6th place in a stage gives none. We explain how points are allocated in further detail in our video below.
With only 18 World Tour team licences available and more than 18 teams intending to apply for World Tour licences for the 2023-25 cycle (Arkea-Samsic have applied and Alpecin-Fenix are strongly rumoured to have applied), the sporting criterion will likely have to be applied by the UCI in evaluating licence applications.
Technically, what we have just described is not a promotion and relegation system, given that at the end of each three year cycle every team must re-apply to obtain a World Tour licence, but for the ease of explanation we shall call it as such. In practice, it rewards the best 18 teams of the last three years with World Tour access, whether they are from the World Tour or ProTeam division. A team granted World Tour designation means they have the right to attend all World Tour races, including the all important Tour de France, where there is no guarantee of receiving a wildcard invitation as we have recently seen in the case of UNO-X Pro Cycling Team.
It could be that the top 18 teams of a three year cycle are only comprised of current World Tour teams and then there would be no possibility of relegation, but, in this cycle, the ProTeams Alpecin-Fenix and Arkéa-Samsic have performed very well and are currently in the top 18 of the three year ranking. This means that two World Tour teams (Lotto Soudal and Cofidis) are currently in the relegation zone. For unknown reasons, the UCI has kept the triennium ranking secret from the public, but on this website we will update the ranking on a fortnightly basis.
As you can see in the graphs, there is less than 1500 UCI points difference between BikeExchange (15th) and Lotto Soudal (20th), a relatively small gap considering that a win in a World Tour level one-day race yields at least 300 UCI points – more in the case of monuments. Given how close the fight is and the number of points on offer in January and February, the relevant teams have started the year strongly.
The longstanding Team Movistar (14th) have started on a positive trend, largely driven by Alejandro Valverde’s performances in Mallorca. Subject to injuries to Mas and Valverde, they should retain World Tour status fairly easy. Conversely, BikeExchange (15th) and even DSM (11th), the two worst WorldTeams of 2021 according to UCI points (excluding Qhubeka), may be relegated if they do not improve their poor results from last season. Israel – Premier Tech have already been leapfrogged by the fast-starting Arkea Samsic (1209 points already in 2022), but with Woods, Nizzolo and Fuglsang targeting big World Tour one-day races which are yet to come, they will likely be safe from relegation. Intermarché have had the second strongest start, with Jan Hirt taking out the general classification of Tour of Oman with teammate Taaramäe in 8th, providing a 250 point boost.
ProTeams TotalEnergies (21st) and Uno-X (22nd) have shown interest in applying for a WorldTour license, but they are out of the sporting fight, being more than 4000 points behind the 18th position – an unassailable gap even with the addition of Sagan for Total.
The good news for relegated teams is that they will at least be eligible for the two automatic wildcards to the 2023 WorldTour if they score more UCI points in the 2022 season than the other ProTeams (the wildcard system is a one year cycle unlike the three year relegation cycle). That will be another interesting ranking to watch throughout the season, as TotalEnergies and Uno-X have become very strong in the transfer market and will be tough opponents for relegated teams.
In the first two weeks of the 2022 season, Lotto Soudal have scored more than Uno-X and Total Energies, but Uno-X has scored more than Cofidis, one of the World Tour teams sitting in the relegation zone. If the Norwegian team outscores them in 2022 they would receive the automatic 2023 wildcards instead of Cofidis – a worst case scenario for any World Tour team. Losing WorldTour status without guaranteed invites to the biggest races in 2023 could cause a team to lose its sponsors and be at risk of folding like Qhubeka. For Lotto Soudal this is an even bigger problem, as they would be less likely than Cofidis to receive the discretionary race organiser’s invitation to the Tour de France and Vuelta a España.
The Fight on the Road
Given the importance of the UCI ranking, some teams have adopted strategies to maximise their sum of their UCI points. Every race is important, from the Tour de France to a third division classic or the national championship of a remote country. As mentioned above, minor races are overrepresented in the UCI points allocation relative to their prestige and offer a great opportunity to score relatively easy points. For example, winning the Vuelta a Murcia (1.1) gives 125 UCI points, 5 more than winning a stage or a secondary jersey in the Tour de France. Similarly, winning the two Canadian classics in Québec and Montréal is awarded 1000 UCI points, the same as winning the general classification of the Tour de France. From our point of view, one-day races are also over-weighted compared to stage races, since they distribute the same UCI points as the general classification of races in the same category, despite being only 1 day of competition.
In the following two graphs, you can see what kind of races the teams in the battle for World Tour status obtained their UCI points in during the past season. BikeExchange scored 74% of its points in World Tour races, while Intermarché-Wanty scored just 27% of its points in World Tour races, making the 1.1 classics its main points pool. Arkéa-Samsic is another team very focused on scoring points in a wide range of races on the calendar, which is helping them to be among the top 18 for now. On the other hand, Lotto Soudal and Movistar both received over 60% of their points in World Tour races, with little systematic focus on the profitable 1.1 classics.
At the start of the season, the pressure to fight for points is evident amongst the teams at risk of relegation or promotion. February is a very important month, with many races taking place simultaneously and with the top World Tour teams such as INEOS and Jumbo-Visma not sending their star riders in peak shape. The prevalence of COVID makes the job all the more difficult for the teams, with riders who test positive becoming unavailable at short notice. For example, Cofidis and Arkéa-Samsic have decided to skip the difficult UAE Tour to focus on smaller races on the Spanish and French calendars. At the Tour de la Provence, we have seen Arkéa star Nairo Quintana already at an impressive level after a difficult 2021 whilst Intermarché sent Hirt and Taaramäe on altitude camps before Tour of Oman so they could score highly on general classification. They are currently the second and third best teams in 2022 by UCI points.
Even taking a look at the individual ranking so far this season, six riders among the top eight in 2022 UCI points are from teams in the relegation fight, with Lotto Soudal sending the strong Tim Wellens to the Mallorcan January races and the new Clásica Jaén gravel race on Monday.
What to Expect
As the fight continues throughout the year, we expect to see the points system influence tactics within races. Already in the Tour of Oman both Vauqelin and Gesbert appeared to have a free role to improve their own GC positions as much as possible, rather than Vauqelin sacrificing himself completely to move Gesbert onto the podium.
In one day races, such as Eschborn-Frankfurt or Faun-Ardeche, expect to see these teams attempting to have multiple riders in the top 10, even if it means sacrificing their chances of overall victory. In previous years it has been commonplace for Intermarché to have two riders contesting the same sprint, but now other teams are adopting this approach. For example, yesterday Lotto Soudal had three riders in the top 10 of Clásica Jaén.
For us fans, there is some added excitement in these smaller races which often take place during the week, as these World Tour teams will line up to hotly contest the race. Whether you agree with the UCI’s points allocation system or not, this was an intended consequence of it, as it boosts the strength of the start-lists at races which struggle to attract big names.
The time to make transfers or new signings for the spring races has all but ended. The last big rider on the market, Domenico Pozzovivo was announced officially today as joining Intermarché.
Pozzovivo is no world beater, but is an experienced rider who can target top 10s in the general classification across many stage races throughout the year – capable of earning over 500 UCI points. With the margins in the relegation battle so tight, his points could prove decisive.
Once the transfer season opens up around August, expect to see some of the teams fishing around for talent who may be able to help them score points in the plethora of one day races in Autumn. Points accumulated on another team prior to signing do not count to the new team’s total (this used to be the case) but all points afterwards do. Intermarché did just that with Biniam Girmay in 2021, signing him from Delko mid-year and benefitting from his vital 601 UCI points in the last few months of the season.
A busy and important couple of weeks approaches, with stage races in Andalucía, Algarve and UAE as well as opening weekend featuring the point heavy Omloop, Kuurne, Faun-Ardeche and Bernard Drome Classic. We will meet here again here after Kuurne with an updated ranking and a review of the evolution of the fight.
Editor’s Note: Raúl Banqueri is a Spanish journalist who has been tracking the UCI points system for a number of years, with the UCI often correcting their ranking to accord with his.