the uneven playing field
on tao geoghegan hart, the relegation battle, and solidarity
This morning, in a now-deleted tweet, Tao Geoghegan Hart kicked the hornets nest regarding one of the most sensitive issues in cycling at the moment: the WorldTour relegation system.
The Ineos Grenadiers rider wrote:
How can we have a relegation system, risking the future of decades old teams during these unprecedented times of sickness. Sport is not fair, granted. But this just doesn’t seem right, not now and not like this. I would like to see solidarity between all riders of all teams.
The tweet came after the news that both relegation-endangered BikeExchange-Jayco’s Simon Yates and Geoghegan Hart’s own Ineos teammate and GC hopeful, Pavel Sivakov both were sent home from the Vuelta after testing positive for COVID-19, the latest victims of an outbreak that has decimated the race. In the case of the former, this blow is especially devastating — BikeExchange-Jayco was betting big on Yates top-tenning the Vuelta, which would have awarded them a significant number of UCI points necessary to save them from relegation.
If you haven’t heard of the relegation debate yet, here’s a concise recap. In 2018, the UCI changed the rules for licensing with regard to the WorldTour teams (the WorldTour is the highest level in the sport.) In the new system, two wildcard spots for ProTeams were added (currently they are held by Arkea Samsic and Alpecin-Deceuninck), the WorldTour was limited to 18 teams, and licenses for the WorldTour would be good for three seasons before they were up for relegation. If more than 18 teams wanted to be in the WorldTour, then they would have to compete for that right through the UCI points system instead of just pay for it. That’s all well and good except for the points system has never made any sense whatsoever, with obscure one-day races being worth significantly more than, say, a grand tour stage. This problem and how teams have handled it has been covered extensively elsewhere.1
So far, narratives of relegation have centered around teams’ decision-making with regard to picking races and riders for those races in order to game the system and rack up easier points, framing the problem as one of an abstracted game of strategy. Teams either play this cleverly or dumbly and riders are merely pawns in the equation, despite being forced to compete beyond what is otherwise expected in a given sporting event in this farcical battle for overall survival.
What Geoghegan Hart touched on in his tweet is the undue stress and anxiety relegation has put on the peloton, especially during a pandemic which is taking out riders left and right, leaving the relegation battle up to forces beyond riders’ control. The untimely exit of Yates only serves to exemplify how unfair and senseless this all is.
Geoghegan Hart has a history of activism and is one of the few members of the peloton with a politically developed outlook on cycling. He is able, through that political worldview, to see the forest through the trees when it comes to the impact of certain issues on cyclists as whole. This is emphasized by the fact that, as a member of one of the strongest and richest teams in the WorldTour, one completely unaffected (if not actively benefitting) from the relegation struggle, Geoghegan Hart still thought it necessary to invoke solidarity with those who are languishing under what is in reality a poorly-thought out system inflicted by cycling’s governing body, the UCI. However, the cycling Twitterati didn’t much agree with Geoghegan Hart’s point and repeated in the comments the prevailing view that some teams are simply smarter and better than others, they earned their right to be in the WorldTour, que sera, sera, and he was later forced to delete the tweet in order to stem the tide of abuse.
As I mentioned before, the biggest misunderstanding about relegation is that relegation (despite the flaws in points allocation) is inherently meritocratic, and that it is a managerial/team problem. The reality is that it is a labor problem. The sponsor-based financial system of cycling makes cycling teams inherently precarious institutions. Teams rely on sponsors for their existence and riders rely on them for their paychecks. If a team becomes unable, due to losing WorldTour status, to automatically participate in the biggest cycling races such as the grand tours (especially the Tour de France) and the five monuments, sponsors won’t get their money’s worth and are likely to withdraw or at least reduce their contributions. Riders’ salaries and would be impacted, and long-time institutions could, as Geoghegan Hart fears, come dangerously close to folding. As I wrote previously in VeloNews, this inherent volatility (of which the relegation system in its current iteration is only a part) contributes to —though does not inherently cause — many of the worst problems in cycling: complete dependency on the sport, overtraining, riders continuing to ride when injured, general risk-taking, and yes, doping.
This financial system was problematic long before the pandemic, but the pandemic has essentially created an element that punishes riders and teams at random for a lack of testing and sanitary measures that are at least partially (if not mostly) the race organizers’ problem. Just today at the Vuelta, maskless fans infiltrated the media zone which has close proximity to riders, resulting in all media being kicked out of the team paddocks for the rest of the race, despite the strict pandemic measures already in place for media. It’s simply easier for the race organizers to enforce one media zone than many — though this doesn’t solve the actual issue which is fans hopping barriers and not adhering to sanitary rules at all.
Unclear standards with regard to COVID-19 itself have also sown confusion as some riders, such as Bob Jungels and Rafal Majka in the Tour de France, were able to continue to race despite testing positive. Teams have also started to keep quiet about why riders — such as Jumbo Visma’s Edoardo Affini — have left the Vuelta, initially mentioning only an illness. In Affini’s case, the team later confirmed that the rider left due to testing positive for COVID-19. This lack of consistency with regard to pandemic enforcement and communication is not only unsafe, it creates an atmosphere of unpredictability, suspicion, and distress. That such conditions could then result in devastating losses for teams on the brink of relegation only exacerbates these problems by giving teams a powerful incentive to forego testing or to keep riders who have tested positive in the peloton. Whether teams choose — wrongly — to act on this, only time will tell, but the fact that this, too, is a labor issue should be fairly obvious as it affects all of the riders in the peloton regardless of how rich or successful their teams are.
In the face of these issues, Geoghegan Hart is unequivocally right in his calls for unity between all teams and all riders. He realizes that these elements serve to create rifts between riders in ways that go beyond normal friendly sporting competition — riders are now competing far more than they would in otherwise normal transfer/contract renewal periods over their individual futures and livelihoods.
Instead of playing into these tempting games, Geoghegan Hart, by expressing his solidarity with others, opens up a new, powerful notion: that joining together to demand a better system for all riders is the only way that everyone can benefit, and that riders have more in common with each other’s struggles than they do the team bosses, sponsors, and the UCI. Regardless of who’s winning and losing in the relegation standings, the fight itself makes life worse for everyone, for the reasons mentioned above, and there are few ideologies more senseless yet exasperatingly perpetuated than “But I suffered, so you should have to suffer too.”
In a sport as dangerous and volatile as cycling, Geoghegan Hart again sees the forest through the trees: he understands implicitly that he, as well as any number of his comrades and competitors could end up in an unlucky or precarious situation at any time, and that even if one benefits from the status quo at the current moment, a better world where no one has to endure such unnecessary distress is certainly possible. And while the scope of this essay, which is about labor, need not delve into the various solutions, one must at least be reminded that before 2018, this whole relegation drama didn’t even exist, and the pandemic measures taken by cycling were certainly more robust, if inconvenient, in 2020 and 2021.
But that better world requires organizing within the peloton, which is always hard to do in a sport riddled with rugged individualism, but not impossible. Just two years ago, there was a self-neutralization led by Tony Martin at the Tour de France when the stage became too dangerous to continue, and a stoppage at La Vuelta led by Chris Froome when the ASO unexpectedly appended rules for bonus seconds in uphill sprints, leading to Primož Roglič once more taking the red jersey from Richard Carapaz who should have kept it. Roglič, a coal miner’s son at heart, also joined in the action. In last year’s Tour de France, riders committed to a slowdown protesting an unusually carnage-filled first week of the Tour. A more militant group in the bunch formed The Rider’s Union, a competing organization to the UCI-run CPA, seemingly overnight. These were the biggest labor actions in the peloton since the 1998 Tour de France, when riders protested the repeated (and in the opinion of many riders, unnecessarily invasive and humiliating) anti-doping raids conducted by the French police, something which left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans when it came to the intersection of cycling and protest.
In the end, cyclists are workers just like you and me, and at the moment, their working conditions are particularly atrocious: an uncontrolled pandemic, a constant, self-sabotaging battle for survival, not to mention the bigger, existential crises such as the increasingly unsustainable temperatures being seen at the Tour and now the Vuelta, where Thymen Arensman collapsed on camera yesterday allegedly due to heat exhaustion. We as fans should want a healthy future for cycling where our favorite riders shouldn’t be forced to suffer beyond that glorious sporting ardor — on cycling’s famous cobbles, climbs, sprints, and descents — they choose themselves.
All in all, even though Geoghegan Hart deleted his tweet, the common Twitter quip still applies: he’s right and he should say it.
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