The spring classics season has ended with Liège-Bastogne-Liège along with its abundance of points on offer, so it is time to take stock of the WorldTour relegation battle. Although the standings are still wide open, Israel and Lotto are clearly the two teams that will be fighting for months to try and rise out of the relegation zone. On the other hand, DSM, Arkéa and Intermarché are in such a strong position that the prospect of them entering the relegation zone is increasingly far-fetched.
The Past Two Weeks
In the last fortnight, Movistar has managed to overtake BikeExchange and EF, two teams that have seen their margin with the relegation zone reduced. In addition, Israel is back to within 1000 points of salvation, although they were probably hoping for more from the Ardennes with Woods and Fuglsang. With zero performances of note in the Ardennes and Roubaix, as well as a lack of general classification strength for the upcoming stage races, the team most likely to be relegated remains Lotto Soudal.
Philippe Gilbert, Lotto Soudal’s road captain, recently confirmed in Het Nieuwsblad that “the team is in a great stress situation around the points”. Gilbert explained that he has competed in the classics despite suffering from respiratory problems.
“There is no longer any long-term vision. We live from week to week, almost from day to day. There is a lot of pressure. It’s true: you could say that stopping and taking the time to recover is the better option, but in the meantime we live on hope. Although maybe in a month’s time we will have to say it was a mistake.”
After winning Paris-Roubaix with Quickstep at 37 years old, Lotto-Soudal signed Gilbert to a handsome three year deal at the same time as signing John Degenkolb to a two year deal after some down years at Trek-Segafredo. The underperformance of these two riders in the spring classics in the 2020-22 triennium, and the opportunity cost of the budget apportioned to their salaries, is a significant factor in Lotto’s precarious position.
Returning to positive topics, the big winner of the last fortnight is Intermarché. The Belgian team had 6 riders in the top 25 in Paris-Roubaix and achieved its first ever Monument podium with Quinten Hermans in Liège. Although almost half of the points scored by the team in the last fortnight were discarded because Devriendt and Hermans “bumped out” the points of riders who were formerly in the top 10. As we have mentioned before, this is a good problem to have at this point in the season, in case riders in their current top 10 become injured or have a run of poor form and the riders in 11th to 13th can step up with already a decent foundation of points.
They now have a comfortable margin of over 2000 points to the relegation zone, especially considering that they historically finish very well in the Belgian semi-classics calendar later in the year.
Like Intermarché, Arkéa had a lot of discarded points, such as the 125 from Pichon’s 8th place in Paris-Roubaix, but that is the toll they pay for competing with so many riders in so many races on the calendar. The French team is probably not under as much pressure for points as it was at the start of the season, but they are still raking them in, despite the abandon of Nairo Quintana at the Tour of Turkey. The quality of Warren Barguil has brought them 240 points between La Flèche Brabançonne, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège, and youngsters Gesbert and Louvel have continued to excel on the French calendar.
During the early season stage races and cobbled classics, DSM’s start to the season was awful but Romain Bardet and Thymen Arensman are beginning to turn that around, both stepping onto the podium of Tour of the Alps after a magnificent team attack on the final stage. The team began the year with a comfortable margin to the relegation zone and with Bardet a real contender for the Giro d’Italia podium, they should be safe by the end of the year.
Among the teams in a more complicated situation, Movistar has unsurprisingly emerged stronger from the Ardennes thanks to Alejandro Valverde, who has scored 470 UCI points between Flèche and Liège. At 42 years of age, Valverde has scored 31.7% of Movistar’s points in this race to avoid relegation. Only UAE with Pogacar (38.5%) and Alpecin-Fenix with Van der Poel (35.3%) are more dependent on their leader than Movistar in the current triennium of WorldTour licences. In the following graph, you can see the points scored by the leaders of the 18 WorldTeams plus Alpecin and Arkéa during the 2020-2022 seasons.
Whilst it is fantastic for Movistar that Valverde can still produce such results for them, he has said he will retire at the end of this year, leaving a huge amount of points in his wake. If Movistar wish to keep their WorldTour licence at the end of the 2023-25 cycle, they will need to make prudent signings this year. As the year progresses and the transfer period begins in August, we will include analysis of transfers from a points perspective in fortnightly these articles.
Like Movistar, Israel - Premier Tech also managed to score more than 500 points in the last fortnight, reversing their negative trend with Patrick Bevin's victories in the Tour of Turkey forming around half of that total. The team seems to be recovering from a spring full of physical problems, but the Ardennes Classics, where the team could have scored a huge amount of points, has already passed and they barely managed less than 300 points between Woods and Fuglsang. Last year those two riders scored a combined 550 points across the three hilly classics, even with Fuglsang having a poor year whilst still on Astana. Israel's salvation will depend a lot on these two riders improving their performance from now on.
Their biggest barrier to salvation, Cofidis, did not shine in Roubaix or in the Ardennes, but still had two good weeks in terms of points, thanks to the French national calendar. They managed to put two men on the podium in both the Classic Grand Besançon Doubs (Herrada and Lafay) and the Tour du Jura (Herrada and Zingle), scoring 368 UCI points between those two 1.1 races. For Cofidis and Arkéa, having such a rich national calendar of races is a great competitive advantage in the fight for relegation.
EF Education-EasyPost had its best week of 2022 in the Ardennes with Ruben Guerreiro's 7th in La Flèche Wallonne and Neilson Powless' 8th in the Liège. The Americans finish the classics season only 1300 points clear of the relegation zone and with Rigoberto Uran knocked about after his crash yesterday in Liege. Theoretically, the months ahead will be favourable for them with Carthy at the Giro and a strong team at Romandie, but if Israel turn their fortunes around then EF will have to seriously worry about the relegation battle.
And finally, the two "losing" teams of the fortnight were Lotto Soudal, who moved further away from safety, and BikeExchange, who moved to around 1000 points of the relegation zone. As Philippe Gilbert noted above, Lotto Soudal are really worried about relegation and are planning an expanded race calendar, which has given them points in the overall classification of the Tour of Turkey with Harm Vanhoucke's 5th place and in the Classic Grand Besançon Doubs with Steff Cras' 4th place. However, their Paris-Roubaix was disastrous, with Florian Vermeersch dropping out, and in the Ardennes they did no better. Yesterday they announced the signings of experienced free agent sprinters Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg and Carlos Barbero, who they hope can accumulate much needed points for the team.
It is worth noting that Van Rensburg has already scored around 350 points across the South African and African Continental championships earlier in the year, something easily forecasted in advance and yet no team in the relegation fight picked him up after Team Qhubeka folded as a WorldTour team. As Van Rensburg was not contracted to a UCI team at the time of scoring those points, by our interpretation of the UCI rules these points effectively 'vanish' and cannot be attributed to Lotto Soudal.
The intention of the transfer rule introduced by the UCI is to prevent teams from 'buying' points at the end of the season from riders who did not score those points whilst on the team. Rather unhelpfully, the UCI has only expressly contemplated the scenario where a rider transfers from one team to another in the first sentence of the rule, without specifying what happens to a rider's points if they had no UCI team when scoring UCI points.
The second sentence is more telling, which states that only points obtained from the date of transfer until the end of the season count to the new team. We consider a new signing to be a transfer as in reality there are no 'transfers' in professional cycling, old contracts are terminated and new ones are signed, so transfer really means "date of signing the contract with the new team." Perhaps Lotto-Soudal thought this was a loophole they could exploit and even received confirmation from the UCI that Van Rensburg's previously accumulated points would count to their total. If this is indeed the case then we would expect other teams in the fight who could be leapfrogged by Lotto-Soudal later in the year, like Israel, to put up a fight at CAS if their WorldTour licence is rejected based on the sporting criteria.
In the case of BikeExchange, we have already pointed out several times that it is a team very dependent on Simon Yates and Michael Matthews. In the last two weeks, Simon Yates has been training for the Giro d'Italia and Michael Matthews has been ill in the Ardennes, unable to finish either Flèche or Liège, races where in other seasons he has achieved places of honour. Groenewegen has taken a break from racing after the Scheldeprijs and their second GC option Lucas Hamilton is yet to finish a stage race this year. However when BEX score, they score big at the top races, like in Paris-Nice with Simon Yates, so they will be hoping for a repeat of his 2021 performance at the upcoming Giro d'Italia.
Thanks to the feedback received in the last few reports, we wanted to bring back the interactive graph where you can see the points of each rider of the teams at risk of relegation. By clicking on the name of the team, a graph opens with the points of each rider of that particular team. The black colour represents discarded points, as only the points of the top 10 riders of each team in each calendar year count for the team ranking.
In the fight for the 2023 WorldTour invitations, decided by the 2022 annual ranking, TotalEnergies and Lotto Soudal still have a wide lead, but Israel has started to close the gap on them. In the current situation, Israel would lose the WorldTour licence and would only get automatic invitations to the WorldTour classics in 2023, but not to the stage races, including the Giro, Tour and Vuelta, and would therefore be dependent on an invitation from the organiser.
With the first part of the season over, the Norwegians Uno-X are unlikely to be a contender in this wildcard race, as they have not been able to maintain the high level of competitiveness they showed in February.
Gap To Relegation
Inspired by an idea from the fantastic Twitter account El tío del dato, we share with you the following interactive graph showing the evolution of the gap to the relegation zone for each team at risk since the relegation race began in 2020. We are often asked if a certain amount of points ahead of relegation is reassuring, so in this graph you can see how quickly the gap to relegation can fluctuate.
For example, last year, BikeExchange lost almost 2000 points margin in the last two months of the season alone, as the Australian team almost did not race the Belgian and Italian 1-day races that abound in September and October. Also noteworthy is the DSM curve, which reached a 5407-point margin at the end of 2020, and is clearly what is holding the team afloat over the triennium.
Some readers have also wondered whether Astana, currently the WorldTeam with the fewest UCI points in 2022, could be at risk of relegation. Their negative streak started in August 2021 and since then they have lost more than 3000 points margin to the relegation zone. However, they would have to have a very catastrophic performance to lose another 3500 points in the remaining 6 months of the season. A more pressing concern for the team is funding and whether they can satisfy the UCI's financial criteria for a WorldTour licence at the end of the year.
The Next Two Weeks – 25 April to 8 May
After these busy months from February to April, the pace of racing will calm down with the start of the grand tour season. In the next few days we will have two WorldTour category races that can impact the fight for the relegation: the Tour de Romandie, with 500 UCI points for the winner, and the Eschborn-Frankfurt classic, with 300 points for the winner.
It is remarkable that both Movistar and BikeExchange will not participate in Eschborn-Frankfurt. They could have gained valuable points with Garcia Cortina or Groenewegen, which they might miss at the end of the season. In 2021 it was even Garcia Cortina's best one day result since joining Movistar, where he came 6th, scoring 115 points. For Israel, the race very much suits their sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo, who will be hoping for a podium result at worst. Do not be surprised if Arnaud de Lie wins the race for Lotto Soudal, the neo-pro has been a revelation this year and is their top points scorer. He also leads them at the upcoming 4 Jours de Dunkerque, a pancake flat race with wind where importantly he can win the GC with 200 points on offer.
The Tour de Romandie features a prologue, a mountain time trial and rainy weather as always. EF will hope that at least two of Powless, Uran or Padun can score in GC whilst the Basque Izagirre for Cofidis should easily make the top 10 given his love of rain and incredible form since crashing in the Algarve. Israel has brought their A team (at least in terms of salary) with Fuglsang and Woods and will need to take opportunities like this to collectively outscore Cofidis and Lotto Soudal. For DSM, we will be watching Andreas Leknessund closely, another talented and tall 22 year old GC prospect who they will hope can take a step up and score like Arensman has in the past weeks. BikeExchange bring none of their top riders, but will be hoping the two time trials favour Matteo Sobrero in scoring something on GC.
No team at risk is taking part in the new International Tour of Hellas, a 2.1 race with some solid GC points on offer. It will be amusing to see if teams in trouble at the end of the year end up flying further afield to races in Asia in search of points, after neglecting races closer to home in Europe earlier in the year, such as the Belgrade Banjaluka last week.
A 2.1 race that a WorldTour team will be attending is the three-day Vuelta a Asturias, where Simon Yates is the top favourite whilst tuning up for the Giro d'Italia. Yates did not participate in the .Pro Tour of the Alps this year which he won last year, but in terms of 'bang for buck' GC races, winning a three day 2.1 race offers more GC points per race day than winning the Giro d'Italia (41.5 points per race day vs 40.4 points per race day) even without factoring in the additional rest days. Yates' biggest competition will be Nairo Quintana who has already raced an incredible amount this year and Christian Rodriguez of TotalEnergies.
We will see you here again in two weeks on the 9th of May, midway through the Giro d'Italia. As always, make sure to let us know on twitter if you have any thoughts on the article or what teams could be doing differently – if you enjoyed it, share it with a friend (or a Directeur Sportif in need).
Editor’s Note: This article was prepared by Raúl Banqueri with contributions from the Editor, Patrick Broe and cover art by Louemans. 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.