This is the time of year for cycling teams to plan their riders’ programs for the new year and for media/fans to speculate about which races riders will go for in 2022. Part of that process is trying to figure out where riders are best suited to get results – especially in the grand tours (of which we know all three routes now). On the horizon, there’s also been discussion around potential relegation of teams from the top level World Tour and how teams can best optimize their schedules to avoid that relegation.
A lot of the work I did with professional golfers was related to scheduling: where they would be able to play their best golf and where that best golf would be most rewarded by the arcane point system in professional golf. I’ve applied that type of approach below to identify: 1) how difficult it is to achieve different results in stage races and 2) where those results are disproportionately rewarded by cycling’s own arcane points system.
First, it’s not much more difficult to achieve results in the three three-week long grand tours than it is in the week-long stage races in the World Tour. Generally, it’s the same set of riders competing for those results whether it’s the Tour of the Basque Country or the Vuelta a Espana.
Second, grand tour success is heavily rewarded relative to other races. GC positions which are equally difficult to achieve can be rewarded 2x more in grand tours relative to those other World Tour stage races and sometimes 3x more in grand tours relative to other lower level stage races.
These two findings explain why teams and riders compete so much for minor top 10 placings in grand tours even when those minor placings are ~10 minutes back of the GC leader.
Difficulty of achieving GC results
The easiest way to compare the difficulty of achieving a GC result in one race vs another is to simply compare results within the same rider/season. Eg, Tadej Pogacar raced five stage races in 2021 coming in 1st in UAE Tour, 1st in Tirreno Adriatico, 3rd in Basque Country, 1st in Slovenia, and 1st in Tour de France. Based on those five finishes and completely ignoring any context around them, we might judge Basque Country race as the toughest as Pogacar failed to win there.
However, we have hundreds of similar comparisons between these races just from the last decade of results. 227 riders have ridden Basque Country and Tour de France in the same season in the last eight years. 123 have ridden Basque Country and Tirreno Adriatico, 36 have ridden Basque Country and UAE Tour, and 30 have ridden Basque Country and Slovenia. We can leverage those comparisons to judge the relative difficulty between each pair of two races.
Above I’ve shown these aggregate difficulty comparisons for Tour of Basque Country and the ~40 races with at least 30 comparisons in 2014-21. They’re ordered by difficulty where the last column value is the expected finishing position in Race A (Basque Country) given a 5th place GC finish on Race B. Eg, if a rider finishes 5th in the Tour de France they would be expected to achieve an equivalent of 4.3 in Basque Country.
Pogacar’s 2021 races are highlighted in red where Tour de France is the toughest, UAE and Tirreno are similar difficulty to Basque Country (expected finishes of 5.2 and 5.5), and Slovenia is viewed as much easier with expected finish of 18th in Basque Country for someone finishing 5th in Slovenia.
This method confirms the primacy in difficulty of the Tour de France as every comparison race is easier to achieve results in than the Tour. However, it also shows the two other grand tours are not any more difficult to achieve results in than the bigger week-long World Tour races like Basque Country, Tour of Catalonia, Tirreno Adriatico, Paris-Nice, and the Dauphine. A 5th in the Giro d’Italia is worth about 5.6 in those five races on average. A 5th in the Vuelta a Espana is similarly worth about a 4.6 in those five races on average. A 5th in the Tour de France is worth a 3.8.
Scaling all races versus those five week-long stage races shows the following hierarchy:
Below I’ve included my top 20 GC riders entering the Tour of the Basque Country in April and whether they raced Basque Country and the three grand tours in 2021. 12 of the top 20 raced Basque Country – including the two clear best – while 14 of the top 20 raced the Tour de France, only 5 of the top 20 raced the Giro, and 12 of the top 20 raced the Vuelta.
There are two popular point system in professional cycling: the unofficial ProCyclingStats points – which I’ve referenced before – and the official UCI points – which determine team eligibility for the World Tour and other qualifications. The point system is explained well here by INRNG, but basically the UCI decides how to group races together and assigns them different points (eg, the Tour de France is its own category awarding between 18-25% more points for a given placings than the Giro or Vuelta and more than 3x more points than the minor World Tour stage races).
We can use those scales to make equivalencies between what the UCI thinks are similar finishes. Eg, a 12th place finish in the Giro or Vuelta is worth 8th place in Catalonia or Basque Country, 13th place in the Tour de France, and 7th in UAE Tour. Moving outside the World Tour races, that 12th place is worth 2nd place in a 2.1 stage race (Tour of Sicily, Route Occitanie) and 4th in a 2.Pro stage race (Arctic Race Norway, Tour of Denmark).
The UCI is saying 5th place in the Tour de France is worth 1st place in those big week-long stage races, 4th place in the Giro/Vuelta, and more than 1st place in every other stage race.
Rewards vs Difficulty
We can combine these two difficulty measures from my research and UCI point scales to find which races over and under-reward finishing highly. I use my research from above to find equivalent performances and then look to see how those are rewarded between races. Eg, I found it roughly equal in difficulty to finish 5th at Vuelta a Espana and Basque Country. However, Vuelta rewards finishing 5th with 2x the UCI points as Basque Country.
Basque Country is rewarded between 50-75% as much for eleven World Tour stage races, but is rewarded 2x as much for the minor 2.1 level stage races like Valencia, Besseges, and Alpes Maritimes. These races attract difficult fields, but are shorter/lower level so they receive fewer points for equivalently difficult results.
The Sweet Spot
So earlier I said the sweet spot in terms of rewards were grand tours with the inverse being some of these week-long stage races at World Tour level. That is without factoring in the time the race takes (grand tours require 24 days of racing with rest leading in and recovery time leading out while the Basque Country is only 6 days of racing with many riders taking just a week before and after between races). Obviously if you’re optimizing at the team level with this data, you’ll factor greater time commitment for grand tours and the position of races on the schedule into planning.
Many of these effects are driven by different strength of fields in different races. I’ve shown GC ratings for riders before (others like PCS have similar rankings). Aggregating those ratings by race yields this plot where the x axis shows the strength of the riders in that race. Eg, Tour de France has the strongest field of GC riders, followed by the Vuelta. Part of the reason results are difficult to achieve in Catalonia and Basque Country are because they rank 3rd and 4th in strength of their riders. The Giro shows up as having a relatively weaker field (more comparable to the week-long stage races) which means the rewards in terms of UCI points are higher for equivalent positions.