Attaining a WorldTour classification ensures that an event has the security of having all 18 ProTeams on the start line. This ensures greater media coverage than the event might otherwise receive, plus the perception that the level of competition will be higher that it would be at a lower level. It also costs the race organiser a lot of money.
And in theory, a WorldTour race should also attract a better startlist than lower-ranked races. But as we’ve seen with events like the Tour of California (2.HC), the Tour of Qatar (2.HC) and of course the Tour de San Luis, a race doesn’t need to be WorldTour ranked to attract a star-studded lineup.
Sure, the likes of Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, Cadel Evans and Richie Porte might be at the Tour Down Under, but it’s the Tour de San Luis that attracts names such as Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan, Nairo Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez.
So why does a smaller UCI 2.1-ranked race attract the biggest names while the WorldTour-ranked Tour Down Under doesn’t? Part of the reason is the UCI’s “sporting value” criterion.
The sporting value criterion
In order for a team to be part of the WorldTour they must meet four criteria: sporting, administrative, financial and ethical. Whether the team passes the first of those is determined, more or less, by the performances of the top 10 riders on that team.
The system is fairly complex and beyond the scope of this piece (see here for more info) but riders accrue points based on how well they perform in races (more points for winning vs 10th place, say) and how those races are ranked. WorldTour races are worth the most while the Continental Tours (e.g the Europe Tour or America Tour) are worth less, depending on the continent.
So in theory, teams should be prioritising WorldTour events as they have more sporting value points on offer — points the teams need in order to hold on to their spot in the WorldTour.
Over the past few years, a team would need about 600-700 sporting value points in order to be within the top 18 teams, but in the past year that figure has dropped, mostly due to the withdrawal of Euskatel-Euskadi and Vacansoleil-DCM.
This meant that Europcar, which had a very small amount of points (404 vs Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s 1531), were able to qualify for WorldTour status without any signings aimed at increasing their team’s cumulative sporting value.
Because there are only 18 teams pushing for the 18 WorldTour spots at the moment (compared to 20 a couple years ago), there’s far less need for those teams to target WorldTour races to accrue sporting value points. This, combined with the debatable prestige associated with winning the overall or team WorldTour means a race must rely on its own merit to attract star riders.
Weather, travel and the course
The Tour Down Under is one of the best races on the calendar and arguably the best in terms of rider satisfaction. All the riders stay at the Hilton Hotel in the centre of Adelaide for the duration of the race, the stages are not too long for the beginning of the season, there are easy after-stage transfers and the Australian summer provides a welcome escape from the harsh northern European winter for most riders.
However the high temperatures can also be a deterrent to participation, as are the long flight times from Europe, the change in time zone and generally the high intensity of the race.
The weather is marginally less extreme in Argentina at this time of year (although the first few stages this year have been in the vicinity of 40 degrees C, there’s a smaller time difference for the majority of riders from Europe, and the travel time is shorter than if they were heading to the Tour Down Under.
One of the reasons the Tour de San Luis attracts the big names is that it’s more suited to GrandTour riders. There are mountains in Argentina (e.g. stage 4 finishes with a 10km climb) while the longest climbs at the Tour Down Under are just a few kilometres long.
The Tour de San Luis also features an individual time trial, unlike the Tour Down Under, and the sprint victories at the Tour de San Luis are less competitive than the Tour Down Under making it a great early season race for sprinters looking to get off the mark without necessarily being in top condition.
The UCI upgraded the Tour Down Under to the WorldTour in 2008 (then called the ProTour) after it saw the ASO’s Tour of Qatar attracting impressive fields. It could be argued that this move was simply a case of the UCI wanting to continue its globalisation of road cycling but there’s no doubt the upgrade was of great benefit to the Tour Down Under as an event.
For one thing it significantly raised the profile of the race internationally, even if it doesn’t guarantee a better field than other smaller events.
In the case of the Tour Down Under vs the Tour de San Luis, it would seem that the benefits of racing a non-WorldTour event outweigh the benefits of racing a second-tier WorldTour event and the prestige that comes with it (not to mention it’s impact on team car position for future races). In this instance we could even say that the benefits of riding a WorldTour event are, in the sporting sense, at times unfounded. If they weren’t we would see all the stars in action in Adelaide.
The UCI must adopt a strategy whereby the importance of the WorldTour is increased so that all future WorldTour events attract the world’s best riders.
The WorldTour may need to restructure the calendar so that the Tour Down Under is closer to the main European races of the year. February would be a good bet, given the next WorldTour event, Paris-Nice, doesn’t start until March 9 — a month and a half after the Tour Down Under.
The UCI also needs to revisit the points allocation so that teams push their best riders to partake in as many WorldTour events as possible. For the organisers of the Tour Down Under their recipe is quite a success, but perhaps placing the event closer to the rest of the WorldTour races could be a consideration.
The Tour Down Under might also benefit from increasing the difficulty of the stages and perhaps providing another hilltop finish, in addition to the famous Willunga Hill stage. That is if the organisers want to attract the big-name GC riders that the Tour de San Luis does.
Of course we’ll never rid the sport from the politics that go on behind the scenes which attract star studded fields to these smaller races (which we can’t talk about here), but these are just a few suggestions that could minimise this.
One thing is for certain though; If we keep seeing the fierce racing at the TDU like we did on Stage 3, it only elevates the status of the Tour Down Under and makes it a race worthy of the best.