Too Many Leaders – Analyzing Team Depth

Pro cycling teams have to juggle a lot of goals: for the season, for a stage race, for an individual race. They also need to juggle ambitions of ~30 riders of varying levels of experience and skill. In most races, teams only ride for a designated leader or maybe 2-3 designated leaders. Based on the parcours and who is performing best, teams decide who are the protected leaders and who will be riding in support in each race.

As we move into a new season, teams have hired new riders and let others go. I had a go at making some basic projections on how teams strengthened or weakened their squad with transfers, age based regression, and natural regression/progression in points earned. One of my caveats in that article was that the projections did not account for team strategies or rider schedules based on transfers. There are only so many leadership positions to go around and teams who hire more leaders are at risk of needing to demote some leaders to support roles in certain races.

In this piece I define “leader” as the top finisher for a team in a race. Of course the top finisher is not always the rider(s) who were designated as the leader at the beginning of the race. However, the top six riders in % of races as leader in 2021 were Nairo Quintana, David Gaudu, Giacomo Nizzolo, Guillaume Martin, Aleksandr Vlasov, and Tadej Pogacar so I think it’s a reasonable proxy.

How This Plays Out For Teams

A quick example, UAE Team Emirates transferred in five major signings who spent at least some races in 2022 as their team’s leader – sprinters Pascal Ackermann and Alvaro Hodeg and climbers Joao Almeida, George Bennett, and Marc Soler. They transferred out four major riders who spent some races as leaders – sprinter Alexander Kristoff, climbers Joe Dombrowski, and David De La Cruz, and puncher Sven Erik Bystrom. Five in, four out. The riders leaving were UAE’s #1 rider on a race day 52 times. The riders coming in were their team’s #1 rider on a race day 76 times. UAE also hired wunderkind climber Juan Ayuso who was the leader in a race – primarily at U23 level – 17 times in 2021. In total, they raced 233 times in 2021 and the riders on their team for 2022 were the #1 rider on their team 288 times – a surplus of 55 races.

We can repeat that same calculation for the other 17 World Tour teams and actually most teams have a surplus; 11 have at least 7% more leaders in their team than 2021 race days, another 5 are within +/- 3%, and only Lotto Soudal (6% fewer) and DSM (13% fewer) aren’t equal or with a surplus. Overall, the surplus is 12% at World Tour and 8% at Pro Tour level. This makes total sense. Teams tend to discard riders who don’t have the capacity to be leaders anymore and hire those that do as a natural progression of the sport. However, some teams are legitimately going to be squeezed for leadership opportunities in 2022 – even if we don’t see Covid related cancellations like the prior two years.

EF Education is probably the most over-subscribed in terms of leaders. They hired riders who were team leaders 102 times in 2021, but got rid of riders who were team leaders just 36 times in 2022 – a surplus of 66 races. Their issues might not be as extreme as represented here as many of their additions come from non-World Tour level teams and/or are developing riders who might need a year before becoming full-fledged leaders. In fact, only 77% of the 2021 leaders on EF came while racing for a World Tour level team (86% is the average for the full World Tour).

All Leaders Aren’t Equal

We need to account for the difference acquiring a leader like Giacomo Nizzolo (who finished 1st on his team 60% of races at World Tour level) and one like Marijn Van Den Berg (moving to aforementioned EF Education) who led his team in 45% of races at U23 level. If we arbitrarily assign a weight of 1x for leaders while riding for World Tour teams, 0.67x for leaders while riding for Pro Tour teams, and 0.33x for any other leaders, we can get a better idea of how much competition there will be for leadership roles. At EF, they now rank third with a surplus of about 18%. The World Tour in general averages a 3% surplus by this method.

Doing that weighting shows BORA and Jumbo Visma as the two with the most competitive leadership competitions. BORA ranked 4th best in adding talent through transfers per ProCyclingStats and 2nd best at adding talent by my projections. They added climbers Aleksandr Vlasov, Jai Hindley, and Sergio Higuita who combined to lead their team 62 times in 2021, and sprinters Danny Van Poppel and Sam Bennett who combined to lead 41 times. Sprints-wise, they should be fine as they’re also losing Peter Sagan and Pascal Ackermann (47 races as leaders) and Van Poppel has also said he’s switching to support Bennett.

Where BORA will see the squeeze is in general classification and hilly/mountain stage leadership. Just filtering to leadership in hilly/mountainous races, BORA rode 94 races in 2021, while their currently employed riders were leaders of their team in such races 146 times! That’s a greater than 50% surplus – far beyond any other World Tour team.

BORA’s 2022 squad with 2021 data from hilly/mountainous races

Flip that around to flatter/classics races and Jumbo Visma looks to be the team with the most issues with too many leaders. Despite moving star sprinter Dylan Groenewegen onwards, they’ve still a tight squeeze. They have a surplus of 36% due to adding Christophe Laporte (punchy sprinter), Tosh Van Der Sande (leadout man), and Tiesj Benoot (classics rider). What looks most likely is that those three will simply sacrifice more of their own ambitions to support Wout Van Aert in classics and young sprinters like David Dekker and Olav Kooij in flatter races.

I wrote in my 2022 team projections piece about DSM’s losses in the transfer market. They were especially hard hit in the climbers/GC riders department where they lost Michael Storer, Jai Hindley, Tiesj Benoot, and Ilan Van Wilder. Those four combined to lead in 34 of DSM’s 102 hilly/mountainous races in 2021 and the other transferred out riders combined for 9 more for a total of 42% of DSM’s races being led by riders leaving the team. They only added a sprinter – John Degenkolb – from a World Tour team, with the rest of their additions coming from lower level squads. Still on the team is Romain Bardet (leader in 63% of hilly/mountainous races he entered), but no one else who led in more than 20% of their hilly/mountainous. In races without Bardet, they’ll be handing out leadership opportunities to their wide array of young climbing talent and hoping for quick development.

Team DSM’s 2022 squad with 2021 data from hilly/mountainous races

Competition for Leadership vs Depth/Optionality

The flip-side of framing this as an issue of too many leaders is that talented riders who were leaders in smaller teams can now move up and support superstars like Van Aert. The team also has cover in case of injury; for Jumbo Visma, if Van Aert suffers an injury their spring classics season isn’t completely ruined as they can plug in competent classics riders like Benoot or Laporte.

BORA just released their preliminary plans for the three grand tours, but they also have the option within those plans to either leave off a rider who is struggling with form or choose to fully back a rider in strong form for GC. Between Buchmann, Vlasov, Kelderman, Hindley, and Schachmann they have riders who have finished 4th in Tour de France, 4th in the Giro, 2nd/3rd in the same Giro, and won a World Tour stage race in back-to-back years. And that ignores Higuita, Konrad, and Kamna who have won grand tour stages in the last three years. There’s definitely option value there in knowing that you can select the best of that bunch for your main focus in major races.

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