UCI points battle offers new lifeline for peloton’s sprinters
Analysis: Life in the fast lane is more crowded than ever, but a new obsession with WorldTour points will mean more support for sprinters.
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Fernando Gaviria celebrated victory Wednesday at the Vuelta a San Juan as if he’d just won a stage at the Tour de France or a major spring classic.
And rightly so.
In today’s highly competitive sprinter’s scene at the top of the elite men’s peloton, every win counts.
For sprinters, the pressure is on to win in just about every opportunity for a mass gallop, with the irony that they have fewer resources and chances at their disposal.
Of course, that’s always been the case for the hard-knock, high-pressure world of sprinters, but it’s even more so these days.
For Gaviria, the victory Wednesday was confirmation that he can still win.
The Colombian suffered through two years blighted by COVID and suggestions that he wasn’t doing the work he needed to do, so victory in the otherwise low-ranking San Juan tour represents a best last chance to prove he’s still a player in the bunch sprints.
Also read: Gaviria fends off Sagan for big win
Several factors are adding up to make it harder on sprinters these days in decades.
A bounty of speed
First, the sprinter field packs tremendous depth at the top of the elite men’s peloton.
Just about every race on the men’s calendar will see at least four or five major sprinters in the bunch. At San Juan, in addition to Gaviria, there’s Sam Bennett, Elia Viviani, Fabio Jakobsen, and Peter Sagan all desperate for a win.
At this weekend’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, there’s Caleb Ewan, Michael Matthews, Daryl Impey, Ethan Hayter, and a host of others.
Things will heat up across the “desert” races at Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE Tour, and then into the early season races in France and Spain.
And that’s just January and February. Once the calendar focuses on the major races, add Dylan Groenewegen, Mark Cavendish, Wout van Aert, Biniam Girmay, and Mathieu van der Poel to the mix. And the list goes on.
Pro riders know they lose more than they win, so any time a top-tier sprinter can leave a race with a victory is an important milestone.
Race organizers don’t make it easy
Second, there are simply fewer chances for sprinters to go around.
Race organizers have been spicing up course design going on two decades, largely at the expense of the traditional, old-school bunch sprint transition stage.
It’s rare to see a stage without at least one or two climbs to spice things up. That makes for more entertaining racing, but it’s a bane to the brawniest of the sprinters. Riders like Tyler Farrar, André Greipel, and Marcel Kittel were nearly chased out of the sport because they couldn’t get over the string of punchy climbs on so-called “sprint” stages to have anything left at the line.
That’s forced sprinters to lean up during the course of the past decade or so, oftentimes at the expense of their pure power.
These lumpier stage profiles have also widened the net of who can win on any stage. Riders from Van Aert and Van der Poel to grand tour winners like Tadej Pogačar can also elbow their way into the frame, creating even more finish-line traffic for the purest of pure sprinters.
Smaller rosters, less support
Third, there are fewer spots on rosters, which is especially felt in the grand tours.
Long gone are the days of teams dedicating an entire grand tour squad for a leadout train. It’s rare for a sprinter to come close to 20-win seasons anymore.
Grand tour rosters have shrunk from nine to eight, putting the squeeze on sprinters and their respective trains.
Jumbo-Visma, for example, cut loose one of the peloton’s fastest sprinters in Groenewegen last year because the team put the yellow jersey as the top priority.
It’s rare for a team to bring more than one rider dedicated to helping a designated sprinter during the Tour de France anymore.
That depends on the team, of course, and Intermarché-Circus-Wanty with Girmay and Astana-Qazaqstan with Cavendish will both bring sprint-focused teams to the Tour in 2023.
Points battle raises profile
Yet there is a ray of sunshine for the fast men of the peloton: UCI points.
The late-season panic in 2022 across the bottom half of the elite men’s WorldTour saw teams tossing riders into lower-tier races in a manic chase for salvation.
Teams that survived, and a few that didn’t, learned that a slow but steady harvest of UCI points is best served with a few select sprinters on the squad.
Even with the tweak to the UCI points system, one-day races and stage wins still bring an out-weighted haul in terms of how many points can be generated on any given day.
A top-5 in a one-day race is more valuable than the same in a GC placing across a full week of racing.
Teams were already talking about this during the recent Santos Tour Down Under, with sport directors saying that they will not be caught out again in the scramble for points.
With the relegation/promotion system still in place, both for end-of-season rankings that determine wild-card invitations as well as the three-year ranking for the next round of WorldTour licenses, points will be at the center of every team tactic.
And that means the sprinters will see their importance and relevance rise again inside the peloton.
Will the peloton see a revival of a Petacchi-esque train for the grand tours? Probably not.
But teams will be slotting in a few more riders to support their sprinters.
Look no further than Movistar, a team hard-wired for grand tours that was on the WorldTour chopping block late in 2022. It signed Gaviria on a one-year deal for 2023 in part to snatch some points across the season. Even if he’s not winning, top fives start to add up.
With every team chasing points, that’s only good news for anyone who likes a fast-finish mass gallop for the win.
That also means that the pressure is augmented even more.
Those finish-line celebrations will be even more intense and emotional, simply because the stakes are higher than ever before.