The Race Before the Race – Understanding UCI Cyclocross Points


2010 Providence CX - T. Johnson at the Start

Photo by Jay Walsh

For most elite cyclocross racers, the most critical part of any cyclocross race is the start. Being one of the first riders through the first turn or major technical section provides a huge advantage as things often bunch-up behind the first group—and as we saw last Sunday in Ruddervoorde when a massive crash in the first corner effectively ended the chances of several favorites. In a matter of moments, a rider can go from contending for the win to being ten to twenty seconds behind. With the start being so important, the obvious question is how does one get to start on the front row? No, there’s no chaotic “race before the race”.  The answer is actually rather simple: UCI points determine who starts where.

Elite riders compete throughout the year for UCI points in order to improve their start position. The more UCI points a rider has, the closer to the front they start. However, not all races offer the same amount of UCI points. Races are categorized by prestige, history, and prize money: Category 2 (C2), Category 1 (C1), World Cup (WC), National Championship, Continental Championship, or World Championship.  Thus, the better a rider does at higher category races, the more UCI points he or she receives.

Most races are Category 2 races for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is cost. In order to hold a UCI-sanctioned cyclocross race, a promoter must secure and provide a significant amount of money up front, just to get on the UCI calendar. Also, all UCI-sanctioned races require a minimum prizes to 25 places, include minimum payout amounts. For example, it takes about $800-$1,000 for C2 race to be placed on the UCI’s calendar. The minimum prize payout for a C2 race is $2,232—for a C1 race the figure doubles.

Due to tight sponsorship dollars and a lack of major media exposure, it’s easy to see why in the United States 90% of all UCI cyclocross races are C2 events. In Europe, there are significantly more C1 races because they have the ability to attract large TV contracts and charge admission to the fans. Also, an interesting rule states there can be no C1 races on the same day as World Cup races—thus knocking nearly half a dozen potential C1 dates off the US calendar. Luckily, one can organize a C2 race on the same day as a World Cup race so long as it’s not in the same country.

Beyond a limited amount of categorized races, there are also restrictions on the amount of points a rider can earn via results in a certain category. While the UCI rankings take into account all points a rider earns, their start position is based on a calculated point total that limits the number of C1 and C2 points a rider can use for his or her start position.  Only the best six C1 and best five C2 race results count toward a rider’s start point totals. World Cup races have no cap. On one hand, this keeps things fair by giving riders a chance to see the front of the start grid by the end of the season; on the other hand, it severely limits the options better riders have to acquire UCI points, especially in nations—like the USA—with calendars filled primarily with C2 events. Thus, a rider like Tim Johnson has already maxed-out the amount of points he can earn from C2 races, since he already has more than five C2 victories.  If Johnson wants to improve or solidify his standing—he can only do it with results in C1 races or better—like World Cups.

That’s a lot to digest, but in order to make this a bit easier to understand, let’s take a look at two of the Americans who travelled to Europe last weekend to compete in the first round of the World Cup in Aigle (Tim Johnson and Jeremy Powers), Switzerland, and compare them to a prominent US rider who did not (Ryan Trebon).

To better understand the impact of UCI points and the effect of one round of the World Cup let’s compare Tim Johnson and Jeremy Powers (who competed in Aigle) to Ryan Trebon (who did not).

Here’s a breakdown of the point structure for each category:

Place            World Cup            Category 1            Category 2

1                    200                         80                          40

2                    160                         60                          30

3                    140                         40                          20

4                    120                         30                          15

5                    110                          25                           10

6                    100                         20                           8

7                    90                           17                            6

8                    80                           15                            4

9                    70                           12                            2

10                  60                           10                            1

11                   58                           8

12                   56                        6

13                   54                        4

14                   52                        2

15                   50*                      1

* Points decrease by 2 through 20th place, then by 1 from 25th to 50th-place.  Each rider beyond 50th gets 5 points.

Tim Johnson’s UCI-point total going into last weekend was 336. However, he’s won five C2 races already, meaning his starting total is actually less since he’s maxed-out his C2 points. So subtract the 30 points he got for second in Gloucester and 40 for one of his six victories, and his actual point total was 266. Johnson picked-up 26th-place in Aigle, netting 34 points—more points than the second-place rider in the C2 races at Granogue, Delaware. Plus, since there’s no cap on World Cup points, Johnson can use those points for the rest of the season. So for the USGP this weekend in Kentucky, Johnson has 300 points going toward his place on the starting grid.

Surprisingly, Johnson’s teammate, Jeremy Powers, had a larger point total going into last weekend. Powers is in a bit of a jam though because he has won two C1 and two C2 races. So, while his point totals aren’t maxed-out, he can only place well in a few more of each and have them count toward his start position. At the moment, Powers can use his three C1 results (80 from Ohio, 80 from Wisconsin, and 17 from Vegas). He’s also done exactly five C2 races, and while he hasn’t won them all, those are his five best C2 results—totaling 130 points. If Powers had raced and won both races in Granogue last weekend, he would have added only 30 points to his starting total. His two victories would replace his second-place from Gloucester and his third-place from Ohio. Even worse, he would then be one win away from maxing-out his C2 points entirely. By travelling to Switzerland and finishing 20th, he gained 40 points (the equivalent of winning a C2 race). And like Johnson, he will keep those points for the duration of the season.  As a result, he heads into this weekend with 377 points—an impressive total.

On the other hand, one rider elected to stay home last weekend, choosing rest over racing and travel: Ryan Trebon. He’s struggled to find wins this season, but Trebon still has amassed 227 UCI points—90 from C1 races and 137 from C2 races. However, he’s already finished six C2 races, so we need to drop his worst result (2 points), bringing his starting total down to 225. If he were to have raced last weekend in Delaware, he could have dropped his two worst C2 results (a third and a fourth) to gain a net of 45 points, sending him into this weekend with 272 points toward his starting position.  By electing not to race though, his point total stays at 225, leaving him 75-points behind Johnson and 152-points behind Powers. As a result, Johnson and Powers—Trebon’s toughest competition—will always get called to the starting grid ahead him.

By now it should be clear why Team went to Europe last weekend. With Johnson, Powers, and teammate Jamey Driscoll all finishing the first World Cup race in Aigel, Switzerland, they drastically increased their overall and starting grid UCI points—all but guaranteeing their places on the first row at the start of every US race.  And it could get worse—for their competition.

With only three C1 races left in the United States, all of the top remaining riders should max-out their C2 point allotments within the coming weeks. As a result, Johnson and Powers have discussed going back to Europe later this fall just to maintain their fine starting positions.  An interesting tactic for sure, but if it works they’ll ensure that the biggest threat to their domestic supremacy has to play catch-up in every race they enter.

Have a great weekend—share your comments below.


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One Response to The Race Before the Race – Understanding UCI Cyclocross Points

  1. Michael says:

    Thank you for this in-depth explanation. One thing does come to mind. Sponsor money for the athletes. That is, must be dropping a lot of money into the European travel of these three. With that investment however, their already top riders get to start in the front, win more races, and get their sponsors name in front of the camera longer.

    I guess what I am trying to get at is this seems to be more of a business decision for sponsors rather than a time/rest/train/travel decision for the athletes.

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