Any given Sunday, right? That’s the saying often used in sports to illustrate that when two teams play a game (usually on Sunday) anything can happen. The underdog can come out on top, no matter how much the odds are against him.
Well, that saying mentions “any given Sunday”, not “some given Sundays” for a reason. Because over the course of a few games (Sundays, in this analogy) the favorite will come out on top more often than not. That’s why they’re the favorites after all. Tis is why it’s much more difficult as a star player to win a championship in the NFL than in the NBA. Anybody can win in the NFL playoffs due to its format of one game per round. In the NBA a team has to win 4/7 games to go through. Even if an underdog manages an unlikely upset in the first series, what are his odds of repeating it three more times? None.
That’s why that Leicester City Premier League win 5 years ago was so shocking. The most unlikely event in sports’ history I would say. It’s just impossible for an underdog to come out on top after 38 straight weeks of games. Well, it happened once, but it’s unlikely to happen again.
The same is true in cycling. It’s much harder to predict the winner of a one-day race than the winner of a Grand Tour (GT). Anybody can win a one-day race. Any given Sunday, right? Case and point: Colbrelli’s Paris Roubaix win just three months ago in his first try. Or Jasper Stuyven’s Milano Sanremo victory in March. And plenty more.
However, during the course of a stage race, the stronger team typically wins. This is evident in the following table, that represents the number of podium places achieved by each team in World Tour (WT) stages-races, during 2020 and 2021:
|UAE Team Emirates||4||3||7|
|Bahrain – Victorious||6||0||6|
|Astana – Premier Tech||4||2||6|
|Deceuninck – Quick Step||3||1||4|
|EF Education – Nippo||1||3||4|
|Bora – Hansgrohe||1||2||3|
|Trek – Segafredo||0||2||2|
|Groupama – FDJ||0||2||2|
|Team Qhubeka NextHash||1||0||1|
|Alpecin – Fenix||0||1||1|
- In 2020, 10 different teams got more than one podium place in a WT stage race. A year later, this number declined to 6;
- Only 1 team achieved more than three podium places during the 2020 season (Team DSM, Sunweb at the time, largely thanks to their 2nd and 3rd places in the 2020 Giro). The following year this number increased to 5;
- Alpecin-Fenix was the only team outside of the WT to achieve a podium place in a WT level stage race between 2020-2021. Mathieu Van Der Poel won the 2020 Benelux Tour.
Granted there were only 10 stage races in 2020 compared to 13 in 2021. But a quick look at the table is sufficient to understand the imbalance between the richest teams and the rest, in 2021.
- In 2021, Ineos, Jumbo-Visma, UAE Team Emirates, and Bahrain – Victorious (which make up 21% of all WT teams) took 69% of the total podium places in stage-races. Ineos alone took 31% of those places;
- Between 2020-2021, those teams collected more than half (51%) of total podium places available in WT stage-races.
If we look just at the GTs this difference is equally clear:
|UAE Team Emirates||2|
|Bahrain – Victorious||2|
|EF Education – Nippo||1|
- Between 2020-2021, out of 18 possible podium places in GTs, the leading teams Ineos, Bahrain – Victorious, Jumbo-Visma, and UAE Team Emirates took 13 of them, or 72%. In simple terms: 21% of the teams took 72% of the podiums in GTs.
The last GT that was not won by Ineos, Jumbo-Visma, or UAE Team Emirates was the 2019 Giro, won by Richard Carapaz, who, at the time, wore Movistar’s uniform. In the meantime, he was signed by Ineos.
The 2018 and 2016 Vueltas won by Simon Yates and Nairo Quintana, respectively, are the last GTs that were either:
- not won by Ineos, Jumbo-Visma, or UAE Team Emirates;
- not won by riders currently signed to one of those three teams.
The 2016 Vuelta was more than 5 years ago, by the way.
I think these conclusions are not a surprise for most fans. Nevertheless, I must admit that, while I intuitively knew the extent of the biggest teams’ dominance, I was still surprised by its extent in terms of numbers.
I haven’t thought much about what this means to the world of cycling. The most immediate results are positive to the riders and the teams: more money is being spent on riders and staff which is excellent for the sport.
Cycling teams are not like soccer, NFL, or NBA teams, in terms of the emotional attachment that they generate, so one could argue that parity is less important in cycling than it is in those other sports. European sports in general are set up in a way that parity is just less important overall because there is more to fight for than in American sports. A Premier League team might have a season to remember for years, sell out their stadium every week, and finish the championship in the middle of table. This doesn’t happen in US sports.
I wrote the above paragraph to illustrate that, in my view, a cycling salary cap is not needed. The NFL’s salary cap works quite well for parity, while the NBA’s together with the maximum salary rule works really well against parity. Even assuming that cycling’s governing bodies could devise a cycling salary cap rule that would encourage parity, I fail to see how they could implement it without taking money out of the sport.
If you implement a max salary per team you’re taking money out of the sport. If you implement a max salary per rider you’re not contributing to parity, you’re simply redistributing the resources from the best riders to the very good ones.
As I said, I understand that in the NFL a salary cap is crucial to prevent owners that could bankroll huge losses to win ten Superbowls from doing so. Parity is at the core of their league because that way they keep all fanbases engaged, invested, and willing to support the teams (and, by extension, the league) with their dollars.
In European sports though, there is much more to a season than just winning whatever competition you enter. Even in cycling, a team can have a very good season without competing for a GT win.
I have heard the prospect of a cycling salary cap being talked about more and more so I wanted to approach this topic. Admittedly this is an incredibly complex issue and I haven’t thought about nor do I have the requisite knowledge to formulate a definitive judgement on this matter. Still, I have yet to see a salary cap that benefits athletes instead of owners so I don’t think it’s possible to devise one that is beneficial for cycling as a whole.