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Opinion: The UCI cyclo-cross ranking update is a failure, but it doesn’t have to be

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Andrew Juiliano - Living that pro cycling dream, one rental van roller session at a time. Maldegem, Belgium

Living that pro cycling dream, one rental van roller session at a time. Maldegem, Belgium (Image credit: Tomas Montes)
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Andrew Juiliano - Namur World Cup bound, but first, stuff all the bikes and wheels into the back of the work van in Oudenaarde, Belgium.

Namur World Cup bound, but first, stuff all the bikes and wheels into the back of the work van in Oudenaarde, Belgium (Image credit: Tomas Montes)
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Andrew Juiliano - Taking the train, then riding to the races in Ardooie, Belgium

Taking the train, then riding to the races in Ardooie, Belgium (Image credit: Annick Lamb)

Anxiety, uncertainty, chaos, frustration, career killing... 

Among the many words that come to mind about the UCI's latest cyclo-cross ranking policy update, 'relief' is not one that I would choose for a rule that detrimentally impacts the careers of over a thousand athletes worldwide. Yet that headline ran last Thursday when the long-awaited rule amendment was finally announced. 

The new UCI policy amendment, as of November 19, 2020, wipes out all ranking points for the start of the 2021-2022 season, except for the 2021 Cyclo-cross World Championships set to take place in Ostend, Belgium, on January 30-31.

It is a blow to individual athletes and national federations, and is an effective self-sabotage of all the hard work the UCI has done to globalise the sport over the last decade. It hurts women, men, veteran racers and developing riders alike. It's just plain bad policy. But it doesn't have to be…

To be frank, we've bigger things to worry about than bike racing right now. Bigger things than the ranking points cyclo-cross racers earn at said races. Bigger things than the start grid positions that said ranking points determine.

The US has set records with 200,000 COVID-19 cases per day in the last week, and a quarter million people have died here. Belgium has been locked down during the latest surge in European COVID-19 cases, though cyclo-cross races still take place thanks to a government decree. 

However, the recent policy decision by the UCI now makes us weigh a fabricated numerical assessment of cycling worth against the very real dangers of a global pandemic. This shouldn't even be a choice we have to consider. That's not the kind of risky dilemma any official policy should promote.*

Of the 1,152 riders with UCI points and thus an international ranking (605 Elite & under-23 Men and 547 Elite & under-23 Women), only 127 of them, across four races, acquired points at World Championships last year. Of the 180 ranked North American racers, only 23 have points from World Championships.

No, 'relief' is not how the majority of racers feel, especially the 1,025 whose results are hosed by the pandemic and subsequent UCI policy. It's a policy that comes off as cyclo-cross elitist (as contradictory as that term sounds), and leaves blue collar bike racers and working class pros out in the cold. 

Of the 1,025 riders wiped from the rankings, around 165 of them, by optimistic estimates, will be North American (USA Cycling is not taking an official under-23 program this year, nor have they come close to filling their Worlds allotments in years past). Of that 165, I will be among the newly rankless. So yes, for the record, I have a stake in this. Yet my decision was made long before November 19, two and a half months into an ever shrinking season, long before the UCI finally released their updated ranking points policy. 

* To be clear: professional athletes shouldn't be shamed for trying to continue careers and livelihoods while following the laws and policies of international governments and governing sports bodies like the UCI. Save your judgmental tomato chucking for the leaders who have failed to set meaningful public health guidelines and policies.

The Belgium government is still allowing professional racing during the country's lockdown and the UCI is still holding events in countries currently locked down, like the upcoming World Cups in the Czech Republic, Belgium and The Netherlands. It is the role of governing bodies to set regulations that encourage good decisions, not set policies that force people to make tough ones.

Career-altering decisions

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Andrew Juiliano - Front row callups mean missing the other row chaos. Exhibit A, in Pontevedra, Spain

Front row callups mean missing the other row chaos. Exhibit A, in Pontevedra, Spain (Image credit: Tomas Montes)
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Andrew Juiliano - Number pinning in Europecar's version of a "utility van" in Xativa, Spain

Number pinning in Europecar's version of a "utility van" in Xativa, Spain (Image credit: Tomas Montes)
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Andrew Juiliano - Rental car hangs with two time Elite Irish CX National Champion, David Conroy, in Elorrio, Spain

Rental car hangs with two time Elite Irish cyclo-cross national champion, David Conroy, in Elorrio, Spain (Image credit: Tomas Montes)

I am not a top ranked racer, but my 51 UCI points do get me front row starts outside of Belgium and the World Cups. In Spain, where 85 guys can take to the start line, with more than three quarters of them unranked, that's a huge difference. I've used my earned starting position to achieve respectable results, like a podium finish (third) at last year's UCI-inscribed Copa España race in Pontevedra along with other top tens in Spain and Italy.

This is the culmination of eight years of cyclo-cross vagabonding, operating out of the backs of rental cars, riding trains to races, chasing World Cups and UCI points across three different continents. I'm damn proud of how hard I've worked for those good rides when they happen. Those points matter.

It's tough being forced into a career-altering decision, especially in the absence of any official guidance other than the constant news of cancellations. A few racers rolled the dice and flew to Europe. I don't blame them. The majority, like myself, decided that with over half of the World Cups canceled and more than 120 events knocked off the UCI schedule including every event in North America, perhaps we had to take the initiative.

If the buck wasn't going to stop with the UCI, it had to stop somewhere. For me, that meant turning down five digits worth of sponsorship bucks. It wasn't right to take money for racing that might not happen. Six months of preparation flushed down the drain. I cancelled long-term accommodations in two different countries and sadly passed up the first RV I would have had for those soggy winter race days in Belgium.

These are the very real-world effects of poorly thought-out policies, delivered halfway through a dying season. Yet now this is the best case scenario – disappointed and rankless racers wondering what the future holds. The worst case, well that's when people's lives are in danger. Rankings now will reshuffle based on risk tolerance and randomisation, not cycling talent or grit.

There are 1,024 other stories like this that the UCI simply erased with their recent policy. Once those points disappear, we'll be at the mercy of 'drawing lots,' the way unranked riders are gridded at UCI races. Unless of course, we opt to risk travelling from all over the world, to the only place with regular racing still happening, so we can try to qualify to scour the dreary Belgian sand dunes in January for our precious points.

Sure, there are COVID-19 testing requirements to get into those Flemish races, but what about the hotels we stay in? The stores we buy groceries? The families we stay with? The families we come home to? Bad policy puts our worlds at risk. But like I said, it doesn't have to be that way.

Solutions

The ITU World Triathlon Series has set a prime example of how to manage risk and maintain ranking points. On March 16, right as the pandemic forced the shutdown of countries across the world, the ITU froze all rankings, and instead there were interim rankings established for any events held between July 1 and December 15.

Those who still wanted to race could, but it would not affect overall rankings that determine World Championships selection and quotas for national federations, once regular racing resumed under more normal circumstances. Those who want to race still can. Those who are unable to travel, or who do not want to due to global pandemic, don't have to compromise. 

It seems that a similar policy would be just as effective for cyclo-cross, which could fairly preserve both the starting hierarchy, established over decades of racing, while also incentivizing people to stay home. 

So UCI, why not just put those cancelled events on a two-year expiration cycle? A freeze on points that most of us are unable to defend due to a world turned upside down. Still hold the World Championships in Ostend, and still allow that race to be counted for next year. Treat it as a bonus for those riders who are willing and able to continue their seasons as the rest of the world stands still.

That seems like a fair compromise for everyone involved. The majority of racers keep the starting positions, hard-earned but now lost through no fault of our own. The lucky few, the cream of the crop who can still race, will have their Worlds bonus points to boost their ranking when the world rights itself again.

So there it is. I've spent far less time proposing a solution than I have whining about the policy in the first place. See, it's that simple. 

Exceptional times call for exceptional measures. Yet asking the UCI to reexamine and rewrite one rule that's less than a week old is hardly exceptional. It's simply essential. It's simply responsible. It's simply the simplest thing they could do, and the right thing to do, during these most exceptional of times.

The UCI was contacted about this issue, but have yet to issue a response.

If you'd like to voice your input to the UCI in support of a more responsible and reasonable policy, e-mail Simon Burney, the UCI off road manager: simon.burney@uci.ch 

Simon Burney, the UCI Off-Road Manager, responded on November 26 with the following comment. 

"Unless the UCI calendar is frozen (as it was during the spring/summer) then it is not fair to the events and athletes that can compete to only freeze the ranking. A frozen ranking means there is neither incentive to have an event on the UCI calendar nor a benefit in competing for the majority of athletes that can still compete. Based on this assessment, we consider the approach taken was the fairest option to help races and riders who can compete but not disadvantage athletes from countries who are not able. For them, their points still remain from the previous year if the event has been cancelled this year. Presuming everything is back to normal next season, a zeroed ranking gives an equal opportunity for everyone to start again with no influence of the health situation from this season. The addition of the UCI points gained at the 2021 UCI World Championships, where we are confident all the leading riders will be able to be present, gives early races a ranking to use for call-up that will include the best riders who had competed in Oostende, Belgium."

About the author

Andrew Juiliano is an award-winning journalist and professional cyclo-cross racer for Lazer-Voler Pro Cycling. He cut his writing teeth as the former editor in chief of ROAD magazine, and he became all too familiar with crappy policymaking during his time as a wastewater policy analyst in California, where he lives, riding circles on the beach, dreaming of grey skies and soggy days on the dunes of the Flemish seaside.

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Andrew Juiliano is a freelance journalist and professional cyclo-cross racer for the Lazer-Volar Pro Cycling team. Find him on Instagram at drewliano.