Pressure to perform
On a more sinister note, after being told at September’s Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal and Québec races that his contract would not be extended in 2012, 26-year old Ag2r La Mondiale rider Steve Houanard reportedly took EPO before the Tour of Beijing as a last-ditch effort to net career-saving UCI points. After Hounard tested positive in China, team manager Vincent Lavenu told L’Equipe that “the situation triggered a reaction that could not be more stupid.”
On the bright side is the fact that the UCI points system does give riders with points more leverage when negotiating contracts. Since points have become a pro team’s greatest treasure, the system gives a team more incentive to treat its riders well if it wants them and their points to hang around. Especially in a pro cycling world in which riders have no union to represent their interests, the points system may give athletes sway they did not possess before.
Also, while Lotto hired a rider like Sohrabi for points first and talent second (if at all), the current system does open a pipeline for riders from non-cycling strongholds to beat a path to the big leagues. Ochowicz sees this as a positive, noting that “it’s great to give riders from some of those other nations a chance.”
Michael Barry recently argued in The New York Times that, lacking the stabilizing ballast of a league and television revenue sharing, teams and riders are even more desperate for the points they need to stay at the WorldTour level. Fall out of the WorldTour and a team can no longer promise its sponsors automatic exposure at the Tour de France. And when multinational sponsors lose their advertising platform, they pull their dollars and look for another sport to buy into. This, in Barry’s opinion, puts both teams and riders “in constant survival mode” and leads to ethical compromises.
So while on one hand the current points system gives greater incentive for WorldTour-targeting teams to pull up qualified riders like Sutherland, it also can throw unprepared riders like Sohrabi into a position where they are clearly in the wrong place. This is not only potentially damaging to the athlete, but is also a disservice to fans who expect only A-grade riders in the WorldTour. Perhaps most unsettling, the points system can undermine the teamwork ethic that makes cycling so compelling. In the past, the domestique won by turning himself inside out for his team. His ability to leave himself on the road was job security. Today, the points system seems to conspire against the solid workers; what once made riders like Txurruka integral to their teams can now make them expendable.