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Analysis: Sohrabi, Txurruka highlight UCI points system’s unintended consequences

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Oct. 19, 2012
  • Updated Oct. 19, 2012 at 12:48 PM EDT
Rory Sutherland is Europe-bound with the talent and points to attract Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

Fuzzy math

BMC Racing president Jim Ochowicz says padding his team’s sporting value application is not a factor when BMC scouts for talent. “We don’t hire riders because of their points,” he told VeloNews.

While Ochowicz maintains that the American squad looks only at rider performance and racing history when deciding who to hire, his team enjoys a budget that allows it to recruit some of the sport’s top players — riders whose talent keeps them loaded with points. Lotto’s 718-point loss in Gilbert was BMC’s gain in 2012. And even in a year when BMC heavy-hitters like Thor Hushovd and Cadel Evans did not deliver the sort of results they have in previous seasons, the team still finished the season comfortably in seventh position in the WorldTour team rankings, with 917 points.

Toward the bottom of the UCI team rankings things are more desperate. At season’s end, Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, Vacansoleil-DCM, Ag2r La Mondiale and FDJ-Big Mat sat 15th to 18th.

This division of wealthy and non-so wealthy squads points to another unintended consequence of the UCI points system. Should it have the financial capacity, a team could buy its way into the WorldTour simply by hiring riders loaded with points. Meanwhile, teams with a smaller budgets but more nurturing farm systems could watch their most talented, points-rich riders hired away every year, which in turn makes it difficult to attract sponsors to keep their projects going.  This quirk of the points system would seem to defeat the UCI’s other stated objective of encouraging WorldTour teams to nurture up-and-coming talent.

Last month, Saxo Bank announced that it had hired this year’s USA Pro Challenge stage 6 winner Rory Sutherland for 2013. Sutherland also won the SRAM Tour of the Gila and Tour de Beuce stage races in 2012, and in 2011 he was seventh GC at the Amgen Tour of California and 10 overall in Colorado.

While the UnitedHealthcare rider’s win atop Flagstaff Mountain in Colorado showed he could deliver a thrashing to some of the best WorldTour riders, racing chops are not all he brings to Saxo Bank. As winner of the America Tour, he contributes 184.8 continental tour points to the dossier the UCI takes into consideration when assigning the team a final sporting value.

When asked if his America Tour points explicitly helped him land a ride back in Europe, Sutherland said “it all does come up in negotiations.”

However, he added, the main sticking point in talking with WorldTour teams was whether his domestic fitness would stand up to the rigors of European racing. “It’s a very difficult jump from the U.S. domestic scene or the Pro Continental scene to the WorldTour, because you are not kind of established in that department,” he said. Sutherland spoke to a number of WorldTour teams, “and they were like, ‘Yeah, we know he’s a good rider, but can he handle Europe? How’s he going to go over here? All his results are in the United States.’”

Sutherland adds that he was not paying particular attention to the America Tour rankings for the bulk of 2012. “It was like a bonus in the end,” he said. “Honestly, the America Tour, we never tried to win it. We just raced our bikes. We didn’t go to specific races just to get points. Until we got to the last event of the year, which was [the Thompson Bucks County Classic], and by that time we already had enough points from Utah and Colorado.”

The fact that there is a foggy correlation between a team’s WorldTour points rank and its qualification for a WorldTour license can add to a team’s anxiety. Asked how continental tour rider points are applied to a team’s sporting value, Ochowicz confessed that he did not understand the calculation, saying “I wish it were clearer.”

“I get that they want to have some system that includes values in the teams that are away from just results,” he noted of the UCI’s methodology. “But when you do that it’s difficult to measure and you are using opinions rather than facts.”

When assessing a team’s WorldTour license application, the UCI looks at ethical, financial, administrative, and sporting variables. The sporting part of the equation combines rider points from the previous two years with the team accomplishments such as team classification placings at stage races. It is not clear how points from the Continental Tour riders are weighted, if at all, when applying them to the WorldTour qualifying formula. The rules are not published publicly, and the UCI did not respond to requests by VeloNews for an explanation of the system.

Like Ochowicz, Sutherland is at a loss to explain how his America Tour points translate into World Tour sporting value. “I have no idea,” he said. “I know that you get a rider value or something. Am I fan of it? No, because I think if you are a proven rider, then you get a job based on that. And now it seems like a lot of teams kind of have to calculate who to bring on and that maybe cuts out a lot of the younger riders and the really good domestiques.”

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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