As we head into September, the end of the season comes sharper into view and with every passing week, the fight for the 2023 WorldTour places becomes increasingly important.
This week sees Israel-Premier Tech fall further into peril of relegation, while Lotto Soudal inch closer to safety and things tighten dramatically in the cluster of teams just above the ‘relegation zone’.
But beyond the tally of points, the major developments concern the system itself, with the impact of COVID-19 being felt ever-more-keenly and leading to questions over fairness from pro riders.
Meanwhile, there’s a potentially bigger cloud gathering as Arkéa-Samsic have now been stripped of Nairo Quintana‘s points from the Tour de France due to his tramadol positives, but that could change if the Colombian’s appeal is successful. The problem being that a final resolution via the Court of Arbitration for Sport could take months and not come before WorldTour licences for 2023-2025 are decided later this year.
The latest standings
Before we get into the areas of controversy, a look at the latest weekly rankings update issued by the UCI shows us that things are getting increasingly tight at the bottom of the three-year ranking that sees 20 hopefuls fight for 18 WorldTour licences.
Israel-Premier Tech and Lotto Soudal currently occupy the bottom two places – as they have for a long while now – and would, as it stands, be relegated from the sport’s top-tier for 2023.
However, the situation is far more worrying for Israel, who are not only rock bottom and not picking up points, but also face a situation where they do not qualify for the parachute prize of automatic wildcard invites to all 2023 WorldTour races.
That luxury falls to the second-division team with the highest points tally from the previous season, and Israel are being outscored by TotalEnergies in 2022.
Israel-Premier Tech scored less than 100 points in the past week, with desperate mid-season signing Dylan Teuns yet to get up to speed. They find themselves 1,063 points from safety – that now being Movistar in 18th place. They are also 800 points shy of TotalEnergies’ tally for this season alone.
If things stay the same, the team of Teuns, Chris Froome, Michael Woods and Jakob Fuglsang will be a second-division outfit next year, doing enough to earn invites to one-day WorldTour races but not the Grand Tours and other stage races.
Lotto Soudal remain in the relegation zone but their outlook is far more positive. They’ve had a strong season, currently ranked 12th for 2022, which has helped them towards safety while also virtually assuring them of full access to the WorldTour calendar in 2023.
They have added almost 500 points in the past week, largely thanks to their chief breadwinner and sprinter Arnaud De Lie.
The 20-year-old neo-pro won the Egmont Cycling Race as the team put two riders on the podium to exploit the heavy weighting for one-day races, while fourth place at Bretagne Classic took him to eighth in the 2022 individual ranking.
Caleb Ewan added his first win since the spring at the Deutschland Tour to take Lotto Soudal to just 300 points from potential safety.
COVID-19 concerns fuel the relegation debate
Above the bottom two sit Movistar, BikeExchange-Jayco, EF Education-EasyPost – all separated by just 105 points.
Movistar have had a terrible season, in which their boss has slammed the points system, and they have steadily drifted towards the danger zone. They have added less than 200 points in the past week but their fate largely depends on the Vuelta a España. If Enric Mas can defend his current podium position, they’d be in for at least 575 points.
And that’s where COVID-19 has come into play again.
The Vuelta has already seen 18 riders forced to withdraw due to the virus, one of them being BikeExchange-Jayco’s Simon Yates. The 2018 Vuelta winner was sitting top-five on Tuesday and was, like Mas, aiming for the final podium. But he will now be unable to register any points for his team. It is worth pointing out that Mas suffered a similar fate at the Tour de France.
In any case, the vagaries of COVID-19 infection and the impact on points tallies appears to be causing increasing concern the closer we get to the end of the season.
Ineos Grenadiers rider Tao Geoghegan Hart, now up to eighth overall at the Vuelta after the abandons of Yates and his own teammate Pavel Sivakov, took to social media to criticise the system on Wednesday.
The British rider said it was ‘not right’ that the futures of riders and teams are subject to such variable external forces and called for ‘solidarity’ among the peloton.
However, he later deleted his posts after a flood of replies, saying: “Nothing has to be deleted. But I can’t be bothered being personally abused and have hatred directed at me. Have zero need for that and plenty more important things to do like my job.”
As it stands, BikeExchange-Jayco have slipped to 17th place this week after barely scoring any points. Meanwhile EF are up to 16th. They have gathered 200 points in the past week but remain winless since the Tour de France and very much in danger.
They don’t have anyone in podium contention at the Vuelta but do have Hugh Carthy, Mark Padun, and Rigoberto Uran in the top 20.
The Quintana question mark
Movistar, BikeExchange-Jayco, and EF Education-EasyPost are the trio of teams in direct danger, but Cofidis and Arkéa-Samsic in 14th and 15th are not out of the woods. They are nearly 600 points behind Team DSM in 13th, who look safe at this point due to good seasons in 2020 and 2021.
Cofidis have had a decent week, scoring almost 300 points thanks to Jesùs Herrada’s stage win in the Vuelta and Benjamin Thomas’ top 10 in the Bretagne Classic. They’re still 15th but now almost 400 points clear of 16th.
However, Arkéa-Samsic have actually lost points since last week, and that’s because of Quintana’s tramadol sanction, stripping him of 455 points for his sixth-place overall finish and other stage placings at the Tour de France.
Quintana’s points were still standing in last week’s ranking, despite news of his positive tests, but have now been removed before his case is heard at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
That leaves the French team on 14,667 points, just 30 ahead of Cofidis. What’s more, Quintana’s not at the Vuelta to score any more points, and they could be dragged into the mire if they don’t have a fruitful end to the year and the WorldTour teams below them pick up their acts.
Quintana’s case also threatens to cause major complications for the system as a whole, and a potential legal headache for the UCI.
If Arkéa-Samsic slide into the relegation zone, it would create the prospect of Quintana’s points being the difference between a WorldTour licence and a ProTeam licence – the problem being that a resolution might not come by the time licences are handed out towards the end of the year.
Quintana has lodged an appeal with CAS but at present no date for a hearing has been set on a schedule that currently runs through November. If Arkéa-Samsic do not earn a WorldTour licence and then CAS overturns the decision of the UCI – possibly into next year – then the governing body would be open to a legal challenge over loss of licence and all the associated business impacts on the team.
If Arkéa-Samsic maintain their current position, any such headaches would currently be avoided. However, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that other legal challenges could be in the works, with BikeExchange-Jayco notably aggrieved that the Tour Down Under and other Australian races – home events and proven points-scorers for the team – have not taken place in recent years due to the pandemic, while the likes of Lotto Soudal have cleaned up at the proliferation of one-day races in their native Belgium.
In any case, in a race that has become increasingly tense and controversial with each passing week, it would be no surprise to see things descend further into farce by the season’s end.