The best thing about being an Arsenal fan is that you don’t have to worry about relegation. To be fair, even though we’re top we’re unlikely to win the league this season, but it has been 110 years since the Gunners last stared down the barrel of relegation and I doubt that record will end soon.
If only things were as rosy for Lotto Soudal and Israel-Premier Tech. Cycling, you see, is currently dealing with a new-fangled relegation system that has forced the sport’s governing body, the UCI, into doubling down amid legal threats from teams battling to avoid the chop.
It was way back in Innsbruck in September 2018 that the Professional Cycling Council (me neither) decided to apply ‘a sporting criterion for the allocation of UCI WorldTour licences based on the number of points accumulated annually’ by WorldTour and ProTeams over a period of three years.
Everyone forgot about it for two and a half of those years, which was understandable: there were more pressing concerns, like the pandemic. Or producing a nice limited-edition kit for the Giro.
Then, suddenly, we had a crazy situation where teams were holding back riders from the Worlds so they could scrap for points at the Classique Paris-Chauny, the GP d’Isbergues and the Omloop van het Houtland Middelkerke-Lichtervelde (me neither).
Why? A points system so byzantine that it probably even had cycling’s most famous economist, Domenico Pozzovivo, scratching his head in disbelief. A system that had teams giving major stage races a wide berth in favour of pushing for top ten finishes in smaller events.
For example, rather than enter the final Grand Tour of the season, Caleb Ewan took on a series of one-day races, including the GP de Fourmies, where his win was worth 200 points – the equivalent of two Vuelta stages.
In the end it was all for nothing, with Lotto getting some 996 points fewer than the promoted Arkéa-Samsic, meaning they will drop down to ProTeam level for a three-year period along with Israel-Premier Tech. To think that Ewan sweated out the entire Tour of Turkey when fifth place in Paris-Camembert would have brought more points than his two stage wins on the Anatolian Peninsula.
So convoluted is the points system that it makes a mockery of the UCI’s recent insistence that the process is ‘fair and clear’. This is a system that gave equal footing to a stage win of the Giro as eighth place in the GP de Plouay.
A system where Juan Pedro López’s ten days in the pink jersey at the Giro brought Trek-Segafredo fewer points than teammate Alexander Kamp’s fifth place in Amstel Gold.
As it stands, Peter Sagan’s TotalEnergies remain at ProTeams level but will receive a wildcard entry to all WorldTour events in 2023 along with the new-look Lotto-DSTNY.
Despite being offered a wildcard sweetener for all WorldTour one-day races next year, Israel-Premier Tech owner Sylvan Adams has threatened lawsuits, while his star rider Chris Froome denounces the system as a ‘death sentence’ for many teams.
He’s not wrong. In football, teams can bounce back the next year, but this isn’t possible in a sport that works on a hand-to-mouth basis. Israel-Premier Tech’s house of cards may come tumbling down with their presence at the world’s biggest race under threat.
Having a four-time Tour de France champion is no longer the lifeline it once was, especially with Froome a shadow of his former self. The team now needs to build a compelling case to get invited, which could explain the links with Mark Cavendish, whose push for that elusive 35th Tour stage would surely be too much for ASO to ignore.
What we know for sure is that the UCI won’t back down, even if President David Lappartient admits that the points scale could be addressed in the future. On the surface, a promotion/relegation system provides healthy competition among teams and adds an extra layer of intrigue to the season.
But while changing the composition of the WorldTour every year would be too disruptive, a three-year demotion is probably too draconian.
It’s worth noting that EF manager Jonathan Vaughters once tweeted his view that a relegation system was a ‘bad idea’. He recalled a meeting held between the top teams in 2012: ‘It was proposed the last ranked team on points would get put down to ProConti. That team? QuickStep. A lot happens in a decade, kiddos!’
The thing is, some teams will simply no longer exist in a decade. The sport’s sponsorship structure is complicated enough as it is without adding more uncertainty. Cycling teams don’t attract support in the same way as football teams, whose fans will stick with them through thick and thin.
A relegated Arsenal would still be one of the biggest teams in the country. But Israel-Premier Tech in cycling’s Championship may not live long enough to battle back in three years’ time.