WorldTour Teams Need to Hold Their Focus on Promotion/Relegation Heading into 2023 & Beyond
The UCI's controversial promotion/relegation system isn't going anywhere, but certain teams and rider have already taken their eyes off the ball the ever-critical race for UCI Points
As the 2022 pro cycling season fades away and teams come out of the UCI’s first, and for many, traumatic, promotion/relegation three-year cycle, many of the affected squads are expressing an eagerness to put a system behind them that created a mad rush and ‘points-focused’ style of racing from the bottom-tier teams to secure their places in cycling’s top division. This style saw multiple teams attempting to get as many riders as possible inside the top 10 places, even at the expense of a race win, and sending their riders far and wide to chase events with the most points available in lieu of major races, like the World Road Race Championships.
However, while one can understand the desire for these teams to go back to a time when they were forced to fret about their UCI points totals, the current promotion/relegation system isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and, if teams don’t consistently score enough points over the next three years, they will be back exactly where they started at the end of this upcoming cycle.
The fact that a decent number of team managers and riders are even suggesting there is a ‘normal’ to return to suggests that they have in fact not learned a lesson from their relegation scare and haven’t internalized that this system isn’t going away and will all start back up again on January 1st. And since points earned in the early part of the cycle are worth no less than points earned while cramming to keep your team out of the danger zone in the final few races, teams would be wise to get out and start scoring UCI points right out of the gate when racing begins in Australia in January.
Making things even more difficult is that there is a case to be made that since teams know they have to keep an eye on their points totals, they will be more effective at maximizing their accumulation, which will make it even more competitive and difficult to stay up in three years’ time, and means building a roster with the ability to consistently rack up UCI points should be on the front of every team’s mind this off-season.
What Points Strategies Worked in 2022?
To get an idea about what points collection strategies worked and which ones didn’t, in 2022, let’s review why some teams made it into the WorldTour for 2023-2025 while others missed out.
After the dust settled and the final results were tallied, and teams like BikeExchange, Arkea, EF, and Movistar remained in the WorldTour while Lotto-Soudal and Israel Premier-Tech were given their marching orders for the lower division, it became clear that the ‘scatter-and-fire’ approach employed by Lotto and Israel in the late months of the competition produced mixed results and the teams who landed on the right side of the relegation line were mainly propelled by the quality of their squad allowing them to consistently rack up points at major races.
For example, Enric Mas racked up more points at the Vuelta than Israel’s top scorer, Jakob Fuglsang, did all season, and EF’s previously unknown mid-season signing Andrea Piccolo, who found himself without a team after his Gazprom squad was shuttered due to international sanctions, scored enough points for EF in the final third of the season that he would have been Lotto’s third-highest points scorer for the entire season (meaning that ironically, while teams were scrambling for UCI points, there was a rider sitting on the open market capable of outperforming their highest-paid riders).
In fact, if we look at the percentage of UCI points scored from WorldTour races from each team that was fighting to avoid relegation in 2022, only Arkéa and Cofidis, who had the correct infrastructure and roster in place to rack up points in lower-level French races, were able to successfully stay up due to a large volume of top results in smaller races. Meanwhile, teams like EF, Astana, and Movistar built their UCI point hauls with far fewer, but more valuable, standout results at WorldTour races.
The biggest takeaway from this is that teams who attempted to rack up points at smaller races only as soon as they realized they were in trouble, but also didn’t have the roster construction to consistently perform at bigger WorldTour races, Lotto and Israel, were essentially caught in the middle of two strategies and lost their WT status at a result. Even though Lotto and IPT ended up coming close to Cofidis and Arkea in terms of the volume of events raced, they simply didn’t have the runway, buy-in from their stars, and roster construction to maximize points at these events.
Race Appearances Per Team in 2022
Cofidis - 124
Arkea-Samsic - 113
Lotto-Soudal - 110
Israel-Premier Tech - 109
Team BikeExchange - 83
Movistar - 74
EF Education - 73
DSM - 69
When looking at the 2022 UCI points total from select riders, the potency of Arkea’s and Cofidis's strategy of racking up points at lower-level events becomes even more apparent. For example, Arkea’s Hugo Hofstetter racked up far more points than Astana’s high-profile team leader, Miguel Ángel López, and Cofidis’ neo-pro, Axel Zingle, outscored both of Lotto’s highly-paid leaders Tim Wellens/Caleb Ewan and Israel-Premier Tech’s Jakob Fuglsang.
Select 2022 Rider Point Totals
Arnaud de Lie - 2268 pts (Lotto points leader)
Mads Pedersen - 1778 pts (Trek points leader)
Hugo Hofstetter - 1231 pts (Arkea points leader)
Ben O’Connor - 1203 pts (A2GR #2 points)
Neilson Powless - 1091 pts (EF points leader)
Axel Zingle - 935 pts (Cofidis #2 points)
Miguel Ángel López - 898 pts (Astana team leader)
Tim Wellens - 791 pts (Lotto #2 points)
Andrea Piccolo - 729 pts (513 for EF/#6 points)
Caleb Ewan - 726 pts (Lotto #4 points)
Jakob Fuglsang - 712 pts (IPT team leader)
Mark Cavendish - 705 pts (QS #4 points)
Of course, nobody in their right mind would suggest that Zingle is currently on par with EF’s Neilson Powless, or significantly better than Caleb Ewan, but Cofidis’ points-collecting strategy allowed him to become a more valuable rider, at least on paper, during the 2022 season.
These points totals also show us the danger of Lotto’s ‘straddle’ strategy, the effectiveness of Arkea and Cofidis’ committed ‘poach’ strategy, and why teams with a ‘premium’ points strategy, like EF, are so susceptible to poor runs of form, since even their best riders aren’t capable of racking up a massive number of points via sprinters and lower-level one-day classics.
While Lotto neo-pro Arnaud de Lie was able to rack up a staggering number of UCI points without winning a single WorldTour event, they still couldn’t overcome the underperformance of Wellens and Ewan at major events. Had they mirrored Arkea by nearly completely eschewing chasing UCI points at WorldTour events and sent their stars to smaller events instead of races like the Giro d’Italia (Arkea declined an invitation to race the Giro to target points at smaller races), they would likely have been able to stave off relegation.
What is the Optimal Points Strategy For 2023 & Beyond?
After reviewing these figures, it might seem obvious that the strategy for any team outside of the elite echelon should be to send their weakest teams to major races and their strongest squads to the smallest races on the calendar. However, the answer is slightly more complicated, and the case for this strategy is less clear than one might think.
Outside of the fact that teams consistently sending their best riders to lower-level races would increase the level of competition at these races to the point where low-level races would no longer present value to teams looking to rack up easy UCI points, it also isn’t a viable long-term strategy for teams who need to create an attractive value proposition for sponsors. French sponsors like Cofidis might be happy for their team to poach smaller races, but EF, an international brand, needs their team to perform on a big stage to justify the cost of sponsorship.
The ‘poach’ strategy employed by Arkea has built-in limitations since now that they have qualified for the WorldTour, they won’t be able to strategically sit out major races, which means that if they want to continue to blanket smaller races with strong riders, they will have to spread their team incredibly thin, and risk running into the same issues Lotto and Israel had in 2022.
This all means that while it could be tempting for teams like EF, DSM, AG2R, and BikeExchange to run separate ‘points squads’ during the next three years in order to avoid being pinched, while these teams might struggle to get results consistently, their aim and sponsor mandate is to compete at the sport’s biggest races, not rack up ‘easy’ wins and podiums in local events. And, as we saw above, it can be challenging for teams to split both strategies.
In the absence of access to an endless parade of young stars, middle and lower-tier teams would be wise to start ranking potential recruits in order of their ability to either score points themselves or assist others in scoring points. For example, they should aim to bring on young talented riders like Andrea Piccolo who are willing to race for results at smaller races in place of expensive established stars like Tim Wellens or Miguel Ángel López who won’t want a schedule full of lower-tier races but also won’t rack up significant points at WorldTour events.
To avoid relegation at the end of the new three-year cycle in 2025, the highly unsatisfying answer for the vast majority of teams is to recruit incredibly well, prioritize riders and talents that can most easily score points above their pay grade, avoid letting let their team’s core age out of being able to consistently compete (IPT), and give their top in-form riders plenty of chances to rack of points so they can weather a down period from a relatively small collection of stars (BikeExchange, EF, and DSM).