Until recently it looked like the UCI's decision to cut the number of WorldTour teams from 18 to 17 for the 2017 season would have little impact on the peloton. The demise of the Tinkoff and IAM Cycling teams was set to leave a hole in the WorldTour and no real competition for the 17 places in the sport's highest division.
However, the recent news that Lampre-Merida was bought by Chinese company TJ Sport Consultation and intends to stay in the WorldTour, has sparked a bidding war that has seen prices rocket. Riders such as Ben Swift, Enrico Gasparotto and even Joaquim Rodriguez have seen their contract value skyrocket as teams fight for riders with points to ensure they have one of the 17 places in the 2017 WorldTour.
Survival in the WorldTour has become more about money than results, ridiculing the UCI ideal that places in the WorldTour are based on sporting merit. The new rules for the 2017 WorldTour have not been made public by the UCI but Cyclingnews understands that the 16 highest-placed teams in the 2016 UCI WorldTour ranking will be considered to have automatically satisfied the sporting criterion for the 2017 season.
The latest rankings, from August 28 – which don't included points from the Vuelta a Espana, show that Cannondale-Drapac is ranked 16th, with IAM Cycling and Dimension Data below them in 17th and 18th place. The conclusion of the Vuelta on Sunday and the two Canadian WorldTour races will change the ranking points totals. Only the Eneco Tour and Il Lombardia will offer other points after this weekend with WorldTour teams set to skip the team time trial at the World Championships.
The two lowest placed WorldTour Teams at the end of the season will be given 2017 UCI WorldTour 'candidate' status. They will go up against what the UCI describes as "other teams existing in 2016 and newly-created teams aspiring to become a WorldTour Team in 2017." The 2017 UCI WorldTour candidates will be evaluated and the final two places in the2017 WorldTour will be awarded based on the points of their five best riders of the 2016 or 2017 roster in the UCI WorldTour individual rankings.
A fight for the final WorldTour spots
As a result, Dimension Data will almost certainly have to fight with Bahrain-Merida and Bora-Hansgrohe for the two final spots in the 2017 UCI WorldTour.
The Chinese project has re-signed team leaders Diego Ulissi and Rui Costa to boost its points total and can now count on several riders under contract for 2017. It, therefore, seems safe and can become China's first ever WorldTour team. Bora-Hansgrohe can count on Peter Sagan's points and those of Rafal Majka, leaving Dimension Data and Bahrain-Merida to fight for the final spot in the 2017 WorldTour.
Until recently, it looked like Bahrain-Merida would secure the services of several key Lampre riders and have their points. The arrival of the Chinese has changed that. Bahrain-Merida is frantically trying to secure the services of riders to bolster their ranks. They've been using their buying power and, perhaps, paying over the odds to secure riders.
Bahrain-Merida has a rumoured 18 million euro a season budget to work with. The team, which is supported by the country's government, has been steadily mopping up riders since the transfer window opened up. Key to their position is Vincenzo Nibali who holds 241 points, while Giovanni Visconti also provides them with 41 and Konstantin Siutsou, who was signed from Dimension Data, has 40, but they are hungry for some more. Today the team announced the arrival of Enrico Gasparotto, who has won this year's Amstel Gold Race and so scored a chunk of points.
This leaves Dimension Data in a precarious position and at risk of losing their WorldTour status after just one season. Their budget is significantly less than their rivals and around 600,000 euros are invested into their Continental development team. Dimension Data has also invested heavily in providing technology and sponsorship to Tour de France organiser ASO.
A tug of war for riders with ranking points
Cyclingnews understands that Dimension Data and the Lampre team were involved in a tug of war over a rider as recently as last week but ultimately Dimension Data were unable to match the proposed salary that Lampre had offered the rider.
That rider, Cyclingnews understands, is Ben Swift. The British rider has 92 WorldTour points, most of which were gained when he finished second in Milan-San Remo earlier this year. Those points, this late in the market could be crucial for a team to gain a WorldTour spot. Swift has been at Team Sky for several years but there has been interest from Dimension Data, Bahrain-Merida and the Chinese team. Cyclingnews understands that the panic in the market has led to Swift's market value edging towards 500,000 Euros - a huge fee for a rider of even's Swift's calibre. When contacted by Cyclingnews Swift's agent would not respond to questions about the rider's future.
The bidding war has reached the point that several riders currently under contract for 2017 may also be tempted to change teams because of significant offers for their services and valuable WorldTour ranking points.
Cyclingnews has also learned that some of the teams still vying for a WorldTour licence have approached Joaquim Rodriguez. The veteran Spaniard is set to retire but his WorldTour points and his signature could be crucial. Teams could potentially sign him on a contract for next year even if he does not race a full programme. The Bahrain-Merida team management have not responded to calls from Cyclingnews.
Dimension Data is currently fourth among the WorldTour teams in terms of victories, with 28. However, only nine of those have been at WorldTour level and they are firmly rooted to the bottom of the UCI's standings. They have just 252 points, more than 100 points behind Cannondale-Drapac, which is the next best team – aside from IAM Cycling which is set to fold at the end of the season.
Cyclingnews understands that the African team is set to announce two signings in the coming weeks and are in talks with others. However, the new arrivals are unlikely to carry much, if any, WorldTour points to the team.
Cyclingnews also understands that the team has been in regular contact with the UCI over the past week and should find out in the next few days if they stand a chance of retaining their WorldTour spot. Dropping down to Professional Continental status could cause problems with key sponsors and mean the team will have to relay on wildcard invitations from major races. Although that may not be a problem with the likes of Mark Cavendish on its roster, it would leave the team without a confirmed race programme for 2017.