A slight departure from the norm this week. Instead of analysing a race, I’m taking a look at how the battle for the number one ranking in the individual WorldTour standings has unfolded over the year. The short answer: quite a lot like last year!
You could be forgiven for thinking it was 2012 all over again. At this point last year, with just Il Lombardia and the Tour of Beijing remaining, Sky’s Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins led the standings with Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez his closest challenger.
Now? With just Il Lombardia and the Tour of Beijing remaining, Sky’s Tour de France champion Chris Froome leads the WorldTour standings with Rodriguez his closest challenger.
How has this come to happen? Let’s take a look at how the current top six riders – Froome, Rodriguez, Peter Sagan, Vincenzo Nibali and Fabian Cancellara – have arrived at their elevated positions over the course of the season.
To start with, here are the current standings:
1. Froome 587 pts
2. Rodriguez 507
3. Sagan 491
4. Nibali 474
5. Valverde 460
6. Cancellara 384
Differing routes to the top
Unsurprisingly, the rankings have fluctuated significantly throughout the season. The chart below provides an overview of how the top six have fared relative to each other over time.
Three of the six – Sagan, Cancellara and Froome – have led the standings at some point, with the Sky man currently holding an 80-point advantage over Rodriguez. (Tom-Jelte Slagter, Richie Porte and Sylvain Chavanel all briefly held the top spot early on.)
But as the criss-crossing lines show, the pecking order even among just the top six has constantly changed. Some started the season faster than others. Some gathered their points in big chunks, while others were gradual accumulators.
To make sense of it all, let’s break down the detail more closely.
Sagan and Cancellara fast out of the blocks
Let’s start by looking at the early part of the season before the grand tours.
None of our six riders broke their scoring ducks until the third WorldTour race of the season, Tirreno-Adriatico. All but Valverde competed and Nibali, Froome and Rodriguez finished first, second and fifth overall.
Indeed Valverde was by far the slowest starter, preferring to ease into the season by entering lesser Spanish races. He registered his first points towards the end of March at the Volta a Catalunya but didn’t break into double figures until mid-April (where he was runner-up at Amstel Gold).
By then Cancellara had already amassed a whopping 351 points through the early part of the spring classics season. A third place at Milan-San Remo (70 points) was followed by a trio of wins at E3 Harelbeke (80), the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix (100 each).
Sagan was similarly quick off the mark as he and Cancellara dominated the pre-Ardennes races. He won Gent-Wevelgem in the middle of a series of three runner-up finishes at Milan-San Remo, E3 and Flanders, the latter two behind the Swiss. Even so, those four results netted him a round 300 points as the two classics strong men established a huge early lead over their WorldTour rivals.
The big guns come out to play
However, all that changed once the spring classics gave way to the grand tour season and the four big GC riders cranked into high gear.
Nibali and Froome were the first to make their moves. The Italian collected 216 points in winning his first Giro and added a further 152 as he finished runner-up at the Vuelta.
Meanwhile Froome scored a combined 225 as his Tour de France preparations stayed right on track with overall victory at both the Tour de Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphine. Victory in France in July netted a further 276, taking him to his current WorldTour-leading total of 587.
Like Nibali, Rodriguez and Valverde also raced in two of the three grand tours – in both their cases the Tour and the Vuelta. Rodriguez finished third and fourth, Valverde eighth and third (and was second at the Clasica San Sebastian in between). However, while Rodriguez accumulated nearly half his total points before May (thanks to big hauls at the Volta a Catalunya, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallonne), Valverde mustered barely a third of his, as he didn’t really start his WorldTour campaign in anger until the Ardennes classics.
By contrast, both Sagan and particularly Cancellara’s scoring have tailed off in the second half of the season, with the latter having added just 33 points after his Paris-Roubaix victory back on April 7th. Sagan, at least, racked up good points at the Tour de Suisse, Tour de France and in winning the recent GP de Montreal.
The accumulators vs the big guns
Over the course of the year, the two Spaniards have been steady accumulators, with Valverde scoring points in nine different races, compared with six for Rodriguez. (Similarly, Sagan and Cancellara have scored in nine and seven races respectively.)
This is in stark contrast to Nibali and Froome. Nibali has gathered his 474 points from just three races: Tirreno-Adriatico (1st overall), the Giro (1st) and the Vuelta (2nd), while Froome’s 587 has been compiled from just four races: Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour de Romandie, Criterium du Dauphine and, of course, the 100th Tour de France.
Finally, splitting each rider’s points tally into grand tours, other stage races and one-day races clearly underlines the differences in their characteristics and how the WorldTour points system provides a degree of balance between grand tour racers and classics specialists (but not pure sprinters).
In the case of each of the four grand tour GC riders, the three-week races account for around half of their total points (three-quarters in the extreme case of Nibali). Valverde’s liking for the hilly Ardennes and San Sebastian classics is reflected by his high percentage of points from one-day races. And, unsurprisingly, both Sagan and Cancellara – the two dominant forces in the spring classics – netted the vast majority of their scoring in one-day races.
While the points system is weighted heavily against pure sprinters – there are none in the top 25 – and does not take into account the efforts of supporting teammates, it’s hard to claim that we don’t have the ‘right’ top six here. The only remaining question is whether Rodriguez can pull off one more big ride at Il Lombardia to defend not only his title there but also claim the number one ranking.for the third time in four years.