A couple of years ago we discovered the Unofficial Football World Championships website (UFWC), which awards an alternative World Cup title to the national team that beats the reigning titleholder in an international match, like with boxing.
The concept is both simple and brilliant. England were the first Unofficial Football World Champions ever, because they were the first national team that succeeded in winning an international match, in 1873 against Scotland (after a previous game in 1872 ended in a scoreless draw). Paul Brown, the journalist behind the UFWC, ploughed through the complete history of international football matches, the result being a list of more than 900 title matches, from 1872 until now. Chile are the current titleholders.
The logical question a cycling fan asks when he first hears about the UFWC: can we apply this concept to professional cycling?
The answer: no. Because a cyclist loses more often than he wins (this is true even for Eddy Merckx), and thus the chance that he retains his title is too small, compared to boxing and football.
Unless we narrow the thing down to a specific discipline or specialism. Time trialling? Maybe, but a time triallist doesn’t ride that many time trials in one year (world champion Tony Martin raced against the clock eleven times in 2016), which could create a lack of title races. To prove our point, in 2016, there were only four time trials that featured both Martin and Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara on their start lists.
Mountain top finishes? Better, but the chance that a breakaway rider takes the win is much higher here, and of course we only want the very best in their specialism winning titles. Moreover, there aren’t (m)any one-day races that finish on mountain tops.
So sprinting it will be! Both classics and individual stages in stage races can finish in mass sprints, and although you always have a pretty clear idea of who might be winning the race, you can never be completely sure – like with football.
Time for action. After a short test run two years ago, we will set up a new competition in 2017: the King of the Sprint. It will be a competition based on title races, following some simple rules.
One nice characteristic that sets this concept apart from the UFWC, is that you never know when the next title race will be ridden, and whether it will be a big WorldTour race or a much smaller race.
Going back in time, as Paul Brown does, is not possible. No one remembers which and how many bike races ended in mass sprint finishes in the past, and certainly not how these results came about.
Only one question is left then: what will be the first title race? Apart from the Australian and New Zealand national championships and the 2.2 Vuelta al Tachira in Venezuela, the Tour Down Under, which starts on 17 January, will be the first race on the UCI calendar in 2017. It seemed quite fitting that the first WorldTour race of the season would crown the very first King(s) of the Sprint. It is true that of the four riders who won the biggest sprint prizes in 2016 – Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel – only the first will race in Australia. However, we want our competition to get going, so we will not wait until all main sprinters sign on for the same race. Whoever beats Sagan in Australia, will be the man to beat in the next mass sprint anyway.