The new-look WorldTour

Brian Cookson UCI CORVOS

Tuesday saw the UCI announce the races that will make up the 2017 WorldTour calendar. All the regular names are there, including races run by the ASO, which resolved its conflict with the sport’s governing body earlier this year.

As part of the WorldTour reforms the current group of races will be joined by an influx of varied new ones, ten of them in fact, which range from the sandy, windswept Tour of Qatar to the muddy, windswept Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, among others.

UCI WorldTour 2017 additions

Judging by the events involved it seems there are a myriad of reasons involved in their selection.

  • The Cadel Evans Road Race attracted nine WorldTeams this season and looks a logical enough addition given its proximity to the Tour Down Under
  • The money grabs – the Tour of Qatar and the 1-year-old Abu Dhabi Tour fill an empty slot in the WorldTour calendar between January’s Tour Down Under and March’s Paris-Nice but the racing is hardly vintage.
  • Spring classics Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche and Dwars door Vlaanderen provide great racing, though perhaps just the first two would have done.
  • Turkey has been linked for a while, though its inclusion is less sensible than ever given the political situation in the country and the fact that the new organisers oversaw what was hardly a success this season, with only two WorldTeams showing up.
  • Finally, Eschborn-Frankfurt, California and RideLondon all hit important markets, with American long overdue a top-level race. The Tour of Britain would perhaps have been a better choice than RideLondon, though that likely would’ve caused a similar problem for local teams as California’s inclusion could.

All races have been awarded with three-year licenses, in accordance with a new application process, something which the UCI claim was “was met with significant interest from race organisers”.

This new-look WorldTour is a far cry from the unpopular reforms originally proposed way back in 2014, which featured shortened races and a confusing B-team system. While these additions certainly seem a better idea than those reforms, there are – as ever – a number of problems and questions that arise as a result of this expansion.

The increased number of calendar clashes is the first problem that springs to mind. With 37 events spread over 176 days there will now be a further 14 racedays during which WorldTour events clash with each other, with seven already on the calendar. The 2014 reforms called for fewer clashes, a plan which has obviously been abandoned.

Many of these clashes are easy enough to deal with – for instance, teams already send squads to the Ardennes and the Tour of Turkey with no problems. A bigger problem will be the weekend of July 30th, which sees three events crammed in. Clásica San Sebastián is held on Saturday, the same day the Tour de Pologne starts and a day before the RideLondon-Surrey Classic.

Marc Madiot FDJ CORVOS

It’s a calendar that FDJ boss Marc Madiot has described as making “no sense”, adding that his squad wouldn’t miss out on French races to meet the WorldTour’s requirements: “it’s part of our duty to support local races as well.” This sentiment is likely to be echoed by other teams, while his thoughts about the UCI’s proposed participation rules (a minimum of ten WorldTeams at new WorldTour events) have already been stated by the AIGCP (the association of pro teams).

At the time of writing the AIGCP has yet to release a statement on the newly-announced reforms, though it’s easy to get a sense of what it would be, given their response to the UCI’s June 23rd press release, which first brought up the subject of participation rules.

“The AIGCP maintains that it is not the case that the PCC approved the principle of setting up for newly-promoted WorldTour events… nor is it the case that the PCC agreed to examine such a proposal at the next meeting of the PCC. On the contrary, it was confirmed, as was approved by the Management Committee and the PCC in 2015, that newly-promoted WorldTour events bear the full responsibility for securing participation of at least 10 WorldTeams with no coercive mechanisms.”

Right now it is unclear how this rule would be enforced. Would the UCI strongarm teams into turning up in Turkey? How would they pick who goes and who doesn’t? The other races (with the exception of Frankfurt at 4) already attract between 7 and 12 WorldTeams, and there probably wouldn’t be too much trouble getting to 10.

One final point can be made about the balance of the calendar. With the new additions the calendar looks even more front-heavy. Nine of the new additions take place before July, in addition to 17 of the 27 current races.

Personally I would’ve liked to see the Arctic Race of Norway, Paris-Tours and Milano-Torino promoted to give the August and September calendar a boost. The latter two races certainly strike me as more deserving from a racing standpoint than some of the UCI’s chosen ten.

Conclusion

Ultimately it looks as though little will change from our point of view – these races will outwardly remain largely the same, though the additional WorldTour points will make a difference for teams, whether or not they choose to attend.

But it does seem like the UCI have inadvertently created another class of races, not quite WorldTour and not Continental-level either. The races are presumably paying similar fees to the current WorldTour races, only to see 7 less top tier teams competing.

The question of cycling’s top tier and how to organise it fairly and positively for all has yet to be solved, and this latest move from the UCI isn’t going to be the final fix. Indeed, it’s probable that the WorldTour problem will never be solved to the satisfaction of everybody involved. One thing is for sure – I certainly don’t think this is the answer.

 

“The Northern Classic in Southern Europe”

sagan-stybar-2015-strade-bianche-siena-cor-vos
The leaders tackle the sterrato last year (Cor Vos)

At least that’s what RCS claims, but is it an accurate comparison?

After the first classics of the season at last weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the peloton heads south to Italy and the Strade Bianche. It’s a race that feels decades-old but Saturday sees just the tenth edition of the Tuscan classic.

The wording in the title is from the organisers, RCS Sport, as part of the race promotion. Of course every promoter seeks to liven up their press releases and put a positive spin on their offerings. So, I thought I’d take a closer look at the race and see if the comparison to the likes of Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen holds up.

Non-tarmacked roads are a novelty common to all of these races, and realistically the basis of all comparisons between them. Strade Bianche is, of course, known for (and named after) the white gravel roads (sterrato) that make up sections of the course.

These are roads that are unique in the sport, save for the rare occasion they find their way into the parcours of the Giro d’Italia. Brittany’s ribinoù – the dirt farm tracks found at the Tro-Bro Léon – are perhaps the closest analogue in terms of texture and ride-feel.

Certainly riding the sterrato gives a sensation unlike riding on any other road – the contrast between riding the white gravel or normal roads is as stark as the contrast in appearance between them. Two-time winner Fabian Cancellara is in a better position than most to comment, and the Swiss draws an interesting parallel.

“I remember once I came off the road when I punctured in Qatar,” he says. “I ended up riding through the sand there. That’s the kind of sensation you have at Strade Bianche.”

Sienna - Italia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack - Nissan) pictured during Strade Bianche 2012 - Gaiole in Chianti > Siena 190 km - 03/03/2012 - foto RB/Cor Vos ©2012
Cancellara takes his second win in 2012 (Cor Vos)

These are normal roads too, used by all as opposed to the pavé of northern France – the exclusive domain of heavy-duty farm vehicles. As a result, the gravel is ground down into a mixture of sand and small stones – a world away from the bone-aching cobbles seen on the road to Roubaix.

“It’s harder to manoeuvre at Strade Bianche though,” says Cancellara. “Because when you are riding through a lot of gravel it’s very difficult to keep your bike steady.”

There is one similarity in terms of feeling, and that is the age-old law of ‘the faster you go, the smoother it feels’, as the bike almost glides over the harsher bumps. Well, not glide exactly but you get the drift.

Selectivity is of course an important factor in these classics – more specifically the road’s importance in how selective the race can be. At Roubaix, the cobbles are often where the race is won and lost, but here the hills are the main obstacle. In this regard, Strade Bianche has more in common with the Ronde van Vlaanderen, with gradients upwards of 10% the norm.

There are no stand-out climbs in the race yet, nothing to compare with lionised hills like the Koppenberg or Muur anyway. Instead it’s an attritional slog made up of innumerable of small but sharp hills and rises.

But while the north has Roubaix and its fabled and historic velodrome, the Strade Bianche has Siena and the Piazza del Campo. The town’s medieval main square is associated more with the famous Palio horse race than bike racing, but just look at it. That is a fitting end point for any bike race, and is certainly one of the more memorable finishes in the sport.

Siena - Italy - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - illustration - illustratie Vittoria pictured during Strade Bianche - By Limar 2014 - San Giminiano - Siena 200 km - 08/03/2014 - photo Claudio Minardi/Cor Vos © 2014
The Piazza del Campo, Siena (Cor Vos)

But before riders get there they have to put the hard miles in – and this is another instance in which the race bears no comparison to the Northern Classics. While 1.HC races such as this are restricted by UCI rules to 200km, WorldTour one-day races have a freer reign, and so we see the 250-260km norm for De Ronde and Roubaix. This year Strade Bianche is 176km long, so in that respect the races differ massively.

And what does Cancellara think about the Strade Bianche-Roubaix comparison?

“It isn’t similar to Roubaix at all. The gravel doesn’t feel the same,” he says. “There are some parts where the roads are a little fluffy, but the race is a different experience altogether.”

It’s an unequivocal statement from the man who will be riding his last Strade Bianche on Saturday, but just because the races are so different doesn’t lessen the value of the Tuscan classic.

So the promotional spin exists to draw attention to the race and boost the profile, but it has certainly worked. Strade Bianche has risen from 1.1 status to 1.HC and there’s even talk of it moving up to WorldTour next season. The startlist is already of a quality approaching Paris-Roubaix, with stars like Nibali, Van Avermaet, Valverde, Cancellara, Sagan and Kwiatkowski all riding on Saturday.

Probably the most important factor to consider though, is one that all of these races have in common – the excitement. The chaos, crashes, punctures and heavyweight battles right to the final turn of the wheel that characterise the Northern Classics are here too. And ultimately, that’s what it boils down to – it’s we watch bike racing for.


A final note: It looks like we might see the first ever wet Strade Bianche on Saturday, as showers and thunderstorms are likely in the morning and afternoon. We all know how revered a wet Paris-Roubaix is, but if you want a taste of what a wet Strade Bianche could be like, look no further than stage seven of the 2010 Giro d’Italia.

Strade Bianche 2012
The peloton kicking up dust in 2012 (Cor Vos)