Cyclingnews understands the UCI is considering a plan to increase the number of WorldTour teams in the 2023 peloton to end the WorldTour relegation chaos that has left teams fighting for ranking points and unsure about their future if they drop out of the WorldTour.
According to several sources, the UCI could significantly change the WorldTour rules and allow 20 teams to compete in the WorldTour races in the next three-year cycle from 2023-2025.
That would avoid any of the 20 teams that have applied from missing out, and so neutralise the ever intense battle for ranking points as teams race to avoid relegation rather than win races.
Increasing the maximum size of the peloton to 200 riders is apparently the key to the last-minute solution. The current limit is 176 riders – 22 teams of eight riders for the Grand Tours and 25 teams of seven for other WorldTour races.
A larger peloton of 25 teams for Grand Tours and up to 28 teams for other events would allow 20 WorldTour teams to compete in all the WorldTour races, give the two best ranked ProTeams of 2022 places in the 2023 WorldTour races, and allow race organisers to award three wild card places.
The only concern about a bigger peloton is rider safety and a possible increase in crashes. However it also increases employment opportunities for more riders and so the CPA rider association is unlikely to oppose the increase. Costs would increase for race organisers due to a need for extra hotels but that is a minor problem to resolve if the race organisers are willing to play their part in finding a compromise solution.
The UCI created the current rules that will see only 18 teams awarded WorldTour places in 2023, with the sporting criterion based on points scored during the last three seasons.
WorldTour status guarantees the teams a place in all the major races, including the Tour de France. Many WorldTour sponsorship and rider contracts insist on having a place at the Tour de France, meaning relegation from the WorldTour can lead to the loss of riders and title sponsors and so the collapse of a team.
In the past the regular demise of teams and sponsors has rarely seen and excess number of teams fighting for a place in the WorldTour but Alpecin-Deceuninck and Arkéa-Samsic have both applied for a WorldTour place for 2023-2025, as have the current 18 WorldTour teams. Two teams are set to miss out unless the UCI makes a last-minute rule change.
Cyclingnews understands that the teams at risk from relegation have come together to try to convince the UCI to award 20 WorldTour places and increase the size of the peloton.
The teams fighting to avoid relegation include Cofidis, BikeExchange-Jayco, EF Education-EasyPost, Movistar, Lotto Soudal and Israel-Premier Tech. The latter two are currently ranked 19th and 20th and so are currently in the relegation zone, but the other teams are closely tied on points and all less than a 1,000 points away from the drop.
Like a game of snakes and ladders, success in a major race can lift a team away from the relegation but a crash or a COVID-19 case involving a team leader can see them miss out on a points haul and so slide into the relegation zone.
That has sparked a battle for every point in recent months with the teams massively changing their race tactics and race programmes to pursue points rather than pure success.
Lotto Soudal have become masters at chasing points and placing as many riders as possible in points scoring positions in the one-day races they target, while Israel-Premier Tech, EF Education-EasyPost and Movistar have floundered and slipped down the ranking.
That has arguably been detrimental to the sport and meant that several teams have also pressured riders not to travel to the UCI Road World Championships in Australia so they are fresh and on form for the final month of racing and points chasing. The imbalance between the points awarded in different races, particularly one-day races and stages in stage races has also skewed the rankings.
Only a rule change from the UCI to allow 20 teams in the 2023 WorldTour can put an end to the battle for points that will last until the final stage of the Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia on October 18.
One source told Cyclingnews that the UCI are supportive of the teams and trying to find a solution but admitted that it is "a complicated and delicate matter."
Another source suggested that if the UCI fails to act, then the group of teams could begin legal action to try to force the UCI to expand the 2023 WorldTour to 20 teams. Strangely, it seems the AIGCP teams association that defends the interest of all the teams in the sport has refused to support the teams fighting to avoid relegation.
The teams are convinced that the UCI rules and limit of 18 teams should be reviewed and changed due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the racing and skewed points scoring system.
"In cycling, it's not promotion/relegation, it's promotion/death," EF Education-EasyPost team manager Jonathan Vaughters recently told Cyclingnews.
"It's nuts to judge a team purely on the points it can score," a directeur sportif, who did not want to be identified, told Cyclingnews. "Some teams can ride better race programmes because they're from Belgium or France, while non-WorldTour races can choose who they invite and squeeze team's sponsors for funding in exchange for a place. That is happening right now.
"What about a team's history? Or if they also run a successful women's team and development team? Cycling teams have to be judged on more than just the points they score. That's not what cycling is about."
In August UCI President David Lappartient defended the limit of 18 teams and suggested a relegation battle is good for the sport.
Cyclingnews contacted the UCI about the proposal to expand the 2023 WorldTour to 20 teams and the peloton limit to 200. They later published a statement insisting no decision has been made to end the WorldTour relegation battle, but did not deny that talks had been held.
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