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MILAN (VN) — The WorldTour series will end Saturday in Italy with Il Lombardia, but a fight will continue into the 2016/2017 off-season. After the Eneco Tour on Sunday, four teams — with stars Tom Dumoulin, Mark Cavendish, Vincenzo Nibali, and Peter Sagan — are battling for three free spots in the 2017 top division. One could be left out.
A WorldTour license guarantees teams the right to race in the UCI’s top 37 events for 2017, including the Tour de France and major classics like Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
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This Sunday, the situation became more complicated. When Oliver Naesen placed third overall in the Eneco stage race, Swiss team IAM Cycling jumped from 18th to 16th in the rankings of the 18 WorldTour teams. Instead of a three-way battle for two spots, the UCI license commission now has a four-way fight if the governing body decides to stick to its plan of capping the number of teams at 17 for 2017. The four teams in question are Dimension Data, Giant – Alpecin, and two upstart squads hoping to debut in the WorldTour: Bora – Hansgrohe and Bahrain – Merida.
The plan is ultimately to reduce the top WorldTeams to 16 by 2018. The UCI introduced a new elimination and promotion system that allows the top Professional Continental team to step up and take the place of lowest ranked WorldTour team.
For 2016/17, the idea was just to trim the 18-team division down to 17, which should have been easy with two of the teams, Tinkoff and IAM Cycling, folding. However, after the Eneco Tour, they rank second and 16th, respectively, and continuing teams Giant – Alpecin and Dimension Data, 17th and 18th. According to the rules, Giant – Alpecin (with Dumoulin) and Dimension Data (Cavendish) become candidate teams for the 2017 WorldTour along with Bora – Hansgrohe (Sagan), which is asking for a promotion from the second division, and the newly formed Bahrain – Merida (Nibali).
“The two last placed WorldTeams on the WorldTour ranking at the end of the final 2016 season will be afforded ‘2017 UCI WorldTour candidate’ status,” says the UCI in its documentation. “All other teams existing in 2016 and newly-created teams may also be declared ‘2017 UCI WorldTour candidate” teams. The candidate teams described are evaluated on the basis of the WorldTour individual ranking [of their five best riders.]”
In theory, the UCI would have a battle between the lowest-ranked WorldTour team and a team like Bora, asking for promotion from the Professional Continental division. Instead, it has four quality teams asking for a place at the table. Both South Africa’s Dimension Data and the Bahraini team make the UCI’s top series more global, and Giant – Alpecin and Bora both come from the resurgent German market.
As a result, teams are fighting for points. Bahrain – Merida is negotiating with Movistar to allow Ion Izagirre out of his contract early. The Spaniard placed second in the Tour de Suisse, third in the Tour de Romandie and fifth in Paris-Nice this year. He counts a massive 270 WorldTour points, more than Esteban Chaves (Orica – BikeExchange) and Nibali (currently with Astana).
Teams are also courting Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha), who is due to retire with his 211 points.
“Our five [riders]? It depends on Izagirre,” Bahrain – Merida manager Brent Copeland told VeloNews. “It would be Izagirre, Vincenzo Nibali, Heinrich Haussler, Enrico Gasparotto, and Sonny Colbrelli. Colbrelli doesn’t have many points but he has some from his third place at the Amstel Gold Race. Right now, to buy a rider with more points than 70 would cost a fortune. I think everyone that has those points are signed up.”
The consolation is that any team left out would be able to race in the Professional Continental division and ask for invitation to the top WorldTour races. Dimension Data did so through 2015 and was able to race in the Tour de France. Any of the four teams should have a sure ticket into the races considering their stars.
Top race organizer Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), which runs the Tour and Paris-Roubaix, is putting pressure on the UCI to reduce the teams from 18 to 17. However, there is a feeling that this may not be the off-season to do so and as so often happens in cycling, plans may change before the new season kicks off in January with the Tour Down Under in Australia.