EF Education Flounder as Lotto Approach Salvation | Relegation Battle

24/04/2022 – Liege Bastogne Liege – Liege / Liege (257,1 km) – Rigoberto URAN (EF EDUCATION EASYPOST)

The Giro d’Italia is over with its big share of UCI points in the general classification, but the alternative continental calendar has also been very rich in the last three weeks, and some teams in the relegation battle have been able to make the most of it. In this article, we will look at the different approaches of the teams at risk for UCI points.

Furthermore, on the second rest day of the Giro, Alpecin – Fenix made it official that they will apply for the WorldTour licence for next season, a rather logical decision to ensure the stability of the project, but one that had not been confirmed until then. Therefore, with Alpecin and Arkéa having confirmed their WorldTour licence application and in a comfortable position in the triennial ranking, it is now virtually certain that two current WorldTeams will not continue in cycling’s top division.

In case you missed it, we announced last week that Raúl will be making daily updates to the UCI Ranking 2020-22 which can be found on this dedicated page here.

The Past Three Weeks

In the last three weeks of racing, Lotto Soudal has continued to close the gap on EF and BikeExchange, who are both in a more critical situation after a below-expectations Giro from a points perspective. Israel Premier Tech continue to lose more and more ground after a very poor Giro, where they were the worst WorldTour team. With five months of the season to go, it is not yet certain that Israel will be relegated, but the team needs a good run of results like the one Lotto Soudal is currently enjoying.

In this article, we have removed Intermarché and Arkéa from the “teams at risk” category. Although mathematically they still have a chance of relegation, their trend, team construction and race selection makes it very unlikely that they will not finish in the top 18 teams in the ranking this year.

Hofstetter says no more relegation talk for Arkéa

Intermarché is shining in every race it competes in at any level, while Arkéa took advantage of the TroBroLeon to put 4 riders in the top 7 and score almost 500 UCI points in that race.

We are also seeing many teams making their debuts in races they have never shown interest in before, such as BikeExchange at the Tour of Estonia (2.1) and Movistar at Boucles de la Mayenne (2.Pro) this past week, with both teams taking podium places in the general classification of those races. Another sign of this is that Lotto Soudal will make its debut in the Sibiu Tour (2.1) in Romania in June, in a further attempt to score UCI points to renew its licence. Jonathan Vaughters’ EF is probably the team at risk least concerned about the UCI ranking, at least from an outward facing perspective, but we expect that the relegation battle will end up being a big concern in the American team internally as the season progresses.

As the more experienced readers will know, minor races are key in the relegation battle. In the following graph, we show the distribution of points within and between teams by competition, e.g. GC, points jersey, scored by each team participating in the Giro d’Italia.

You can see that BikeExchange has been the best team at risk in the Giro, with 416 UCI points thanks to Simon Yates' two stages and Sobrero's last time trial, but both Lotto Soudal and Cofidis have scored much more points in the 1-day continental races in France and Belgium. It is the best example to explain that this battle for relegation is not won or lost in the big competitions, but mainly in those races that you can practically only follow on the internet. Many of the managers of at-risk teams have realised this too late.

As we said, Lotto Soudal have managed to get close to the salvation zone, despite their star rider Caleb Ewan leaving the Giro without victories and a paltry amount of points. Interestingly, Thomas De Gendt's stage win in the Giro has also had no impact on the ranking, as he is outside the top 10 of Lotto Soudal riders. Youngsters Arnaud de Lie and Florian Vermeersch are driving the Belgian team forward, with victories in the Marcel Kint Classic and Antwerp Port Epic respectively, as well as other places of honour in minor classics. Veteran Philippe Gilbert also confirmed his good feeling with a third place in the Circuit de Wallonie worth 70 points.

De Lie Arnaud (BEL) of Lotto Soudal wins the UCI 1.1 Europe Tour Marcel Kint Classic cycling race with start in Kortrijk and finish in Zwevegem on May 29, 2022 in Zwevegem, Belgium - Photo: Nico Vereecken/PN/Cor Vos © 2022

On the sporting front, the team has had a remarkable month of May, but the pressure of the relegation battle seems to be causing internal problems and tensions. Manager Valerie D'Haeze has resigned and some Belgian media have reported that Tim Wellens is looking to leave the team at the end of the season. However, Caleb Ewan's agent has told VeloNews that the Australian sprinter will not leave Lotto Soudal even if the team is relegated. It is possible that riders from the two relegated teams will be able to cancel their contracts and be free to move to another team, so long as their contract is contingent upon the relevant team holding a WorldTour licence.

Cofidis has been the other winning team in the last 3 weeks. They have not had a great Giro, despite Guillaume Martin's customary attempts to backdoor a GC top 10 from the breakaway, but the French team is making the most of the continental calendar (especially the French one). Benjamin Thomas won the Boucles de la Mayenne, Jesús Herrada was 4th in the Tour du Finistère and 2nd in Boucles de l'Aulne, while Axel Zingle finished 10th in the Marcel Kint Classic, 9th in Boucles de l'Aulne and 2nd Circuit de Wallonie. Between them, the three riders have scored 505 UCI points in the last three weeks, more than 15 teams in the entire Giro d'Italia.

Benjamin Thomas (FRA - Cofidis) has been a brilliant signing by Cofidis - Photo: Roberto Bettini/LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2022

BikeExchange was the best team at risk in the Giro, but their prayers largely went unanswered in respect of Simon Yates' GC position. Last year Simon Yates scored a podium and 695 UCI points in the Giro and this year he dropped out with only 200 points. However, the team is also beginning to take care of the smaller calendar and Groenewegen scored 199 points thanks to his victories in the Tour de Hongrie and the Veenendaal Classic and his 4th place in the Rund um Köln. Most interesting for the team was their last-minute participation in the Tour of Estonia (2.1), where they were the only WorldTeam on the startlist. Despite a flat prologue and two sprint style stages, the team will probably be disappointed to leave with no stage victories and only third on GC. Huge Estonian talent Madis Mihkels beat Groves in an uphill sprint on stage 1, an 18 year old already with a 2.5 year deal on Intermarché commencing in August.

Even so for BikeExchange, they scored 120 UCI points across the race, at a higher rate per race day than they did at the Giro d'Italia.

Movistar has also been able to climb the podium in the two alternative races they have contested: the Tour de Hongrie (2nd with Óscar Rodríguez) and the Boucles de la Mayenne (3rd with Alex Aranburu). These results have minimised the damage of a rather discreet Giro for the Spanish team, where Valverde has only scored 124 points (120 from the 11th place in the GC and 4 from his 5th place in the Mortirolo stage). Many Spanish fans have blamed Valverde's conservative style in the Giro on his quest for UCI points in the general classification. However, the former world champion has raced this way throughout his 20 years as a professional and if he were truly hunting points he would have appeared in more breakaways in the style of Guillaume Martin, attempting to claw back time.

Bad luck has been very bad for DSM, who for the first time this season have a gap of less than 2,000 points to the relegation zone. Bardet had to abandon the Giro when he was a candidate for victory and Brenner tested positive for Covid in the Tour of Norway when he was fifth after the queen stage. Nevertheless, they were able to salvage those disappointments with Dainese's stage win and Arensman's good performances, and, looking ahead to the relegation fight, Nikias Arndt's third place in the Rund um Köln brought them 70 very important UCI points.

Blockhaus - Italy - cycling - Mikel Landa (ESP - Bahrain Victorious) - Richard Carapaz (ECU - INEOS Grenadiers) - Romain Bardet (FRA - Team DSM) pictured during 105th Giro dÕItalia 2022 - (2.UWT) - stage 9 from Isernia to Blockhaus (191KM) - Photo: Luca Bettini/SCA/Cor Vos © 2022

Matters are more delicate at Education First, which is already 18th on the brink of the relegation zone. Hugh Carthy's irregularity deprived him of a top 5 in the general classification of the Giro, which would have been more in keeping with his strengths shown on the Fedaia steep finish than his ninth place in GC, which gave him 180 UCI points. In addition, the EF was the team with the shortest alternative calendar to the Giro, participating only in the Tour of Norway. There, Esteban Chaves suffered in the winds and could only finish ninth, scoring 40 UCI points, not enough to move away from the relegation zone.

But undoubtedly the worst team of the last weeks has been Israel - Premier Tech, which has shown a very poor performance. Nizzolo could only enter one stage in the top 3 and retired before the last week and De Marchi could not be protagonist any day in a race where last year he wore the maglia rosa for several stages. In addition, in the Tour of Norway, Patrick Bevin had to abandon with stomach problems when he was seventh after the queen stage, losing the 60 UCI points that this position gives him in the general classification. Climber Carl Fredrik Hagen has been the team's most outstanding cyclist, with a top 5 at the Tour of Hongrie and a top 10 at the Tour of Norway, but the Israelis are increasingly likely to be relegated. The absence of Ben Hermans since the end of March (presumably due to sickness or injury), an elite rider in these five to six day .Pro races, is really hurting their points tally in the alternative calendar.

2023 Wildcards

In the fight for the 2023 WorldTour wildcards, decided by the 2022 annual ranking, Lotto Soudal and TotalEnergies remain very comfortably in the top two positions, which give access to the wildcards for the entire WorldTour calendar. The French team has also completed a great month of May, with Julien Simon winning the Grand Prix du Morbihan and the Tour du Finistère.

Currently, Israel would lose its WorldTour licence and would not get wildcards for next year's WorldTour stage races. However, if EF were to enter the relegation zone instead of Lotto Soudal, those wildcards would go to TotalEnergies and Israel, as Israel has earned more UCI points than EF so far in the 2022 season. This could result in a situation at the end of the year where Israel are mathematically relegated but Lotto and EF are still fighting for salvation, in which case Israel would be incentivised to work for Lotto in races they both appear in.

This would be one of the many unintended consequences of the current promotion and relegation system, if a team like Israel would commit to such an unorthodox strategy.

The Next 2 Weeks (30 May – 12 Jun)

The competition continues after the Giro with 11 races in the next fortnight and the Critérium du Dauphiné as the big WorldTour race. However it is likely to be the eight one-day races (five of them in Belgium) that will be the most relevant events in terms of the relegation battle. The list of these races is below with the start-list linked.

  1. Mercan'Tour Classic Alpes-Maritimes (1.1, 31/05) (Movistar, Lotto, Israel, Cofidis)
  2. Giro dell'Appennino (1.1, 02/06) (Israel)
  3. Adriatica Ionica Race (2.1, 04/06 – 08/06) (unknown)
  4. Heistse Pijl (1.1, 04/06) (Lotto, Cofidis, Israel)
  5. Brussels Cycling Classic (1.Pro, 05/06) (Lotto, Cofidis, Israel, BikeExchange)
  6. Critérium du Dauphiné (2.UWT, 05/06 – 12/06) (All)
  7. Ronde van Limburg (1.1, 06/06) (Lotto, Cofidis, Israel)
  8. ZLM Tour (2.Pro, 08/06 – 12/06) (DSM)
  9. Grosser Preis des Kantons Aargau (1.1, 10/06) (Lotto, BikeExchange, Cofidis)
  10. Dwars door het Hageland (1.Pro, 11/06) (Lotto, Cofidis, Israel)
  11. Elfstedenronde Brugge (1.1, 12/06) (Lotto, Cofidis, Israel)

Lotto Soudal, Israel and Cofidis are the teams with the biggest schedule over the next two weeks, as they will cover all the Belgian classics. For Lotto Soudal it is a great opportunity to get closer to the top 18, as right now they have De Lie, Vermeersch and Gilbert in great shape to challenge for podiums and victories in suitable races.

Vermeersch' first pro win at the Antwerp Port Epic Cycling race 2022 (182 km over unpaved and cobbled roads ): Gregory van Gansen/PN/Cor Vos © 2022

Israel also have a fantastic opportunity to close the gap on EF, as they are sending both Woods and Fuglsang to the hilly Mercan'Tour and Appennino races as well as an in-form Sebastian Berwick who just took a victory in Alpes-Isere with power data that should be competitive at these 1.1 races. Instead of riding solely as a domestique for the more senior Woods or Fuglsang, Israel should be encouraging riders like Berwick to accumulate top 10s, in the style of Arkéa. Presumably Sep Vanmarcke will line up for them in the Belgian classics where he is more than capable of top 5 results.

Movistar did not plan to take part in the Mercan'Tour Classic in their original calendar so they are probably tinkering with the calendar with UCI points in mind given their presence this week. In any case, their biggest chance for points will come in the Dauphiné with Enric Mas, a podium contender in the general classification.

EF is the only team at risk that will not race outside the WorldTour based on current startlists, so they will depend on the performance of climbers Chaves and Padun in the Dauphiné. The team's future does not look good if they continue to ignore strategies to maximise UCI points as if they are relegated they would only receive automatic invites to WorldTour one-day races assuming they surpass UNO-X at some point in the 2022 ranking. Wilfully ignoring the relegation system seems like an imprudent approach when EF should have been able to remain in the top 18 teams quite easily with some very minor schedule alterations during 2022.

Hugh Carthy (GBR / Team EF Education - Nippo) pictured during 105th Giro dÕItalia 2022 - (2.UWT) - stage 15 from Rivarolo Canavese to Cogne (177KM) - Photo: Miwa iijima/Cor Vos © 2022

They began the year with a handy buffer from 2020 and 2021, and so did not need to almost entirely focus on points like Lotto-Soudal and Cofidis have done. Perhaps the team believes that they can litigate any relegation at the Court of Arbitration for Sport but the cost of such an approach and the stress it applies to the riders, staff and sponsors, seems to outweigh the cost of simply sending Marijn van den Berg to some suitable Belgian or Dutch 1.1 races that the talented neo-pro should have attended for his development anyway.

We resume our regularly scheduled programming of fortnightly instalments now that the Giro has finished. 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. 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.

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