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The Cycling Transfer Market

With the latest transfer news that has been swirling around today, seeing another team added to Acquadro's blacklist, and a number of high profile riders now finding reduced markets available for their wares, we saw another chapter being written into the history of cycling transfers. Anybody who has been following the sport for some time will no doubt have noticed that the way cycling teams do business with regards to rider contracts, transfers, and how the riders themselves conduct their business has shifted considerably over time, and especially in the last decade this change has been felt, and this in conjunction with some factors outside of the teams themselves has meant that we are now left with a significantly different cycling landscape than the one we saw ten years ago.

The footballization of cycling's transfer market has been going on for some time. Cycling got by - somewhat archaically - for decades on an honour basis, with contracts not announced until August 1st, and riders typically completing their contracts without issue, unless there was extenuating circumstances that led to a contract being terminated by mutual consent, or a relationship breakdown made continued coexistence of rider with rider, or rider with management, impossible, such as following the very public spat between Abraham Olano and José María Jiménez in the 1998 Vuelta. Cyclists would therefore sign contracts, ride them out, and then take out a new contract on the expiry of that contract, where other teams would enter a competitive market against the incumbent team, and contract buyouts were rare and exceptional. While we have seen 'tapping up' to some extent in the past, it has risen from that status of an occasional factor in the market to a common practice since the rise of the moneyed national project in recent years.

It is too easy to blame the convenient boogeyman of Team Sky/Ineos, however. While they were undoubtedly guilty of this at their outset - obtaining Wiggins and Swift through this means, with Wiggins' contract with Garmin being bought out - they have become emblematic of many of cycling's perceived problems of imbalance, and they should not be singled out for this. At the outset of GreenEdge, the team that is now Mitchelton-Scott were tapping up Australian riders for the following year's launch before the Tour Down Under, back the previous January. Astana and Katyusha both also launched to great fanfare and threw money at home riders with existing contracts.

Another sea change has been that expectations of young prospects has been changed by a number of remarkable young talents who have hit the ground running. The early career successes of the likes of Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Remco Evenepoel have launched a new arms race, as World Tour teams race around trying to hoover up every single young prospect under the sun in the hope that they unearth the next superstar, with these riders bypassing traditional development routes through domestic calendars, ProContinental teams and even the espoir scenes entirely, being snapped up at increasingly early ages, sometimes straight from juniors - but with the amount of roster space at World Tour teams being limited, how sustainable is this as an approach? Several teams have the option to place riders through their own feeder systems - several teams have these, but strangely not as many as ten years ago, when Garmin, Euskaltel, Katyusha, Rabobank and Astana all had Continental-level development teams, while others like Quick Step, Lotto and Movistar had their amateur teams (this latter group all still exist) and still other teams had agreements in place with leading amateur teams. However, as we saw a couple of seasons ago, when BMC - one of the richest teams in the péloton - folded their development team because they were unable to prevent Sky from poaching their best talents, just creaming off the top talents and placing them into a development team isn't necessarily the way to keep them either.

One man who has kept his finger on the pulse, however, is Gianni Savio. For years derided as cycling's answer to Flavio Briatore, Savio and his team have lasted for twenty years at the increasingly difficult to make tenable ProContinental level, moving with the times despite a famously low budget seemingly made up of getting 400.000 small companies to submit €10 each. Starting out as a farm team to bring South American cyclists to Italy and race the national calendar, the team then made its name on a "no questions asked" basis, signing riders with name value coming off of doping bans or while under investigation, taking advantage of the then-current system in the World Tour, whereby a gentlemen's agreement saw the top tier teams pass on riders returning directly from a doping ban, to acquire riders of star quality that his team would otherwise not have been able to afford, such as Michele Scarponi, Davide Rebellin, Emanuele Sella and Franco Pellizotti. With that gentlemen's agreement going the way of the dodo in recent years, it became increasingly difficult to justify a ProContinental calendar to a top stage racer, and so teams at that level tended to rely on sprinters to acquire results. Savio has, however, hit upon a new way of making money, and that is by hoovering up teenage wonderkids from South America, and locking them in to football-style contracts, that is to say contracts that are years longer than anybody would reasonably expect these talents to stay at a second tier team, in the knowledge that they are never going to keep the rider for all of that duration, but can instead sell them on with a lucrative buyout clause when they become good - effectively serving as a mercenary development team. With his connections in both Italy and Colombia, it is no surprise that Savio has become a first port-of-call for Giuseppe Acquadro to place his latest South American charges, and that does therefore mean that, so far, he has acquired some handsome sums from Team Sky/Ineos for Egan Bernal and Iván Sosa, and is likely to pocket a tidy sum from whichever team chooses to buy out the contracts of Kevin Rivera and Jefferson Alexander Cepeda in future.

Savio's adaptability has enabled him to survive on a much smaller budget than many would-be contenders and pretenders at the ProContinental level, some of which (IAM, Vacansoleil) have grown to the World Tour level but been unable to sustain it, some of which have collapsed under the weight of their own expectations (Aqua Blue, Coldeportes) and some of which have simply failed to grow to the level they needed to in order to justify the expenditure of the jump up in levels (Cult Energy, ONE Pro Cycling, Soul Brasil, Verva-ActiveJet). Many of the most durable survivors in the ProContinental ranks are teams that can guarantee at least one major invite a season, and frequently are what, in football, would be termed "selling clubs". Caja Rural and their lopsided relationship with Movistar is a case in point. Caja Rural are guaranteed an invite to the Vuelta every year, plus every major race in Spain. They have a number of riders with name value, and their own amateur feeder - but generally speaking, their position as near-neighbours to the much more world-renowned and richer Movistar squad means that every couple of years, Unzué's squad will raid Caja Rural for its best riders, and repay them with offcuts and veterans reaching the end of their usefulness for Unzué - over the years they've acquired José Herrada, Javi Moreno, Rubén Fernández, Carlos Barbero, Lluís Más and Jaime Rosón from Caja Rural (as well as picking up a couple of other ex-Caja Rural riders via other routes, such as Eduard Prades and Victor de la Parte), mostly at the ages of 25 or younger, and in return have provided their neighbours with David Arroyo, Ángel Madrazo and Sérgio Pardilla.

The UCI's recent survey results showed that fans are concerned about the concentration of talent into too small a number of teams, but this is the price that the UCI has to pay for the way they tried to force the World Tour onto the teams fifteen years ago, in the guise of the ProTour at the time. The amount of compulsory races including extensive travel, making it difficult for some teams who were sponsored by small local companies to appear in the races in their key home markets, led to the cost of running a competitive cycling team jumping upwards, as well as the prohibitive cost of the licence (driven in part by the costs of implementing the biopassport, of course). This, allied to the strong economic situation in the late 2000s before the global recession meaning there was a very strong and well-funded national calendar in all of cycling's traditional homelands, and the quarantine being placed on riders returning from suspension meaning they could not find homes in ProTour teams, meant that the national calendars of Spain, Belgium and especially Italy were rife with very strong ProContinental outfits, who would often ride one GT a year - their home one - and approach it with gusto and with genuine contenders. Look at the GC of any Italian stage race in the late 2000s-early 2010s and you'll see often half the top 10 made up of riders on Italian - or at least Italian-based - wildcard teams.

The sea change there came with two teams, one in 2009 and one in 2010. Cervélo Test Team launched in 2009 with a creative modus operandi, but one that scared the UCI: Cervélo decided that they didn't want to commit to have to do every ProTour race, and besides, they may fail if they apply for a ProTour licence. Instead, they would pay the much lower price of a ProContinental licence, and spend the balance on riders - acquiring riders of incredibly high calibre such as Carlos Sastre and Thor Hushovd. In practice, this meant Cervélo were a ProTour team in all but name; they could do any race they wanted, because what stage race organizer would say no to the reigning Tour champion? What classics organizer could say no to a roster including the likes of Hushovd and Haussler? In effect, therefore, they got to do any race they liked, but without being forced to ride any compulsory ProTour race they didn't want to. The following year, BMC, one of the smallest ProContinental teams the year before, got a huge injection of cash, and used it to acquire a few big names - reigning World Champion Cadel Evans, and outgoing World Champion Alessandro Ballan among them. Again - what race organiser could say no? Despite that the remainder of BMC's roster at the time was in no way capable of handling a full World Tour-level calendar, the presence of those stars was enough to get them invites to all the major classics, and two Grand Tours, at the expense of the - at the time - popular Vacansoleil outfit, who had gone about hunting the invites the traditional way, building a strong ProContinental lineup, being visible in all stage races they were invited to and scoring solid results in the UCI Europe Tour. The UCI therefore realised that this made a mockery of the entire ProTour/World Tour concept, as if a team could get all of the benefits without the obligations, why would a team ever fork out for the full licence? As a result, the changes that were made - including the restrictive points system that led to teams like Lotto, Ag2r and Euskaltel snapping up nobodies who had scored big points in late season races in Asia - prevented moneyed newcomers like Cervélo and BMC from exploiting the wildcard system, but this came at the expense of largely strangling the existing wildcard system, when placed in conjunction with the economic situation heavily reducing the national calendars especially in Italy and Spain.

To back up my point, I took a look back through CQ to show the increasing emasculation of the ProContinental level over the last decade, and the results are striking: the number of riders from outside the World Tour making the top 100 has reduced drastically. The high point for ProContinental riders in the top 100 on CQ Ranking was 2010, when no fewer than 28 riders outside the World Tour made it to that level, but for the last three seasons we've only been operating at a third of that capacity, with 10, 10 and 11 ProContinental riders in the top 100 in 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively. From 2010-12, riders on ProContinental teams were able to make the top 10 in the world on CQ (Cadel Evans 6th in 2010, Thomas Voeckler 5th in 2011, and John Degenkolb 9th in 2012), while in 2018 the highest-ranked non-World Tour rider was Eduard Prades all the way down in 51st!
2009: 26 riders in top 100 - 9 in top 50 - best placed Thor Hushovd (14th)
2010: 28 riders in top 100 - 12 in top 50 - best placed Cadel Evans (6th)
2011: 20 riders in top 100 - 7 in top 50 - best placed Thomas Voeckler (5th)
2012: 16 riders in top 100 - 4 in top 50 - best placed John Degenkolb (9th)
2013: 14 riders in top 100 - 2 in top 50 - best placed Gerald Ciolek (39th)
2014: 16 riders in top 100 - 5 in top 50 - best placed Sylvain Chavanel (23rd)
2015: 18 riders in top 100 - 4 in top 50 - best placed Nacer Bouhanni (20th)
2016: 10 riders in top 100 - 5 in top 50 - best placed Bryan Coquard (11th)
2017: 10 riders in top 100 - 3 in top 50 - best placed Nacer Bouhanni (26th)
2018: 11 riders in top 100 - 0 in top 50 - best placed Eduard Prades (51st)

This shows a clear tendency towards a lower number of ProContinental riders being competitive as against the top names of the World Tour. One thing I also noticed was a shift in the style of rider; in those early days you have names like Michele Scarponi, Stefano Garzelli, Riccardo Riccò, Ezequiel Mosquera, Juan José Cobo, Carlos Sastre, Xavier Tondó, José Rujano and Domenico Pozzovivo - riders who will have acquired the vast majority of their points in stage races - alongside a few second tier and even the occasional top tier (Petacchi, Degenkolb) sprinters. Over time, however, the number of climbers and stage racers dwindles such that they are a real rarity, although there is the occasional outlier such as Egan Bernal in 2017, or Primož Roglič in 2015 - while he was still riding for Adria Mobil, so isn't even at the ProContinental level at that point, and instead the majority of the ProContinental riders who are able to make it into the top 100 are sprinters - preferably durable ones - able to take advantage of the glut of sprinty one-day races in the Coupe de France and the Belgian national calendar; this has also strangled the life out of ProContinental teams outside of the traditional heartlands, who have to work extra hard to justify invitations to the biggest races as it is harder for them to survive off of their national calendars in isolation (as Aqua Blue notably found).

The loss of really competitive national scenes, coupled with the small number of World Tour wildcard opportunities afforded to ProContinental teams, has really hurt them when it comes to attracting top talent in recent years, particularly with regards to stage racers. What reason would a top - I mean really top - young prospect ever have to turn pro with, say, Burgos-BH or Direct Energie now, when they can go straight to the World Tour? Even though there are bound to be a few Argiro Ospinas, Thomas Vedel Kvists or Matvey Mamykins in there, most World Tour teams believe that that is worth it if they are able to nab the next Egan Bernal. But there are only so many roster spots, and I do wonder if we are headed for a near future where, following the parallel development in football, we will see World Tour teams sign young prospects to multi-year deals, and then loan them out to ProContinental teams for a year or two. Real Madrid currently have 16 players on loan at other teams; Chelsea have 21. Yes, in football not all of those are young prospects - but a lot of them are. We don't see loan deals in cycling at the present time, but football developed this current system out of the urgent race on the part of the biggest clubs to have the next wonderkid; they couldn't afford a smaller team to buy and nurture them, and then have to pay big money for them, so they sign them all up young, let them develop and then cut the ones that don't make the grade. But they can't afford to sign all the wonderkids if they have limited roster space, and the UCI has deemed it necessary to implement rules on maximum roster size. We've already seen Sky/Ineos - and this is one of the most impressive things they've done, all told, even if it's not something that I am happy that they have done for its implications for competition - adopt a standing policy of signing as many of the best young prospects as they possibly can, with the aim of restricting the young talents available to other teams to the ones that Sky/Ineos have already had a look at and rejected. Other teams have got to get in there early with offers if they want to get there first. But then, if they're then signing riders to World Tour teams at age 17-18, they aren't going to even be remotely ready unless they are an Evenepoel-type outlier; what happens then? With limited roster spots, teams either have to give these youngsters a baptism of fire, or they have to overwork their remaining roster in order to not overwork the young prospects - and that isn't ideal for anyone.

For ProContinental teams, they seem to be faced with a conundrum. They could become an in-effect pre-retirement home for mid-level riders who are being shoved aside at increasingly younger ages by the World Tour teams to make room for these prospects, but that would just be an extension of the current situation, where they essentially make the numbers up with a few riders hoping to use their experience to nab the occasional stage win; alternatively, they could embrace the Savio method, and look to be mercenary development teams, signing riders to contracts they know they'll never fulfil, and tell the riders as much, inserting release fee clauses and all of those other football-style add-ons like buy-back clauses, sell-on fees and so on in order to extract profit for the work they do developing riders they'll never get to win anything with, because a big team will come calling as soon as the rider starts to show promise... or they can test the waters of a loan system, lobby for such if there are no current provisions for such a system, and replenish their roster that way. Obviously this is not as straightforward as football, seeing as cycling is not two teams head to head but up to 25 teams competing against one another in a battle royale, and so loan terms would have to be far more restrictive than you see in football; there would have to be the equivalent of being "cup-tied", where a rider could not compete in the same race as his parent team - much as development teams are not allowed to appear in the same race as their parent team in UCI races.

I do not think that the above is an ideal situation by any means, however I am concerned by the concentration of all talent into a limited number of teams, which could get even more restricted if we have a limited number of agents who funnel all of their talent to the same teams. The UCI's neutering of the ProContinental level in 2011 may have been necessary to prevent exploitation of the system by teams like Cervélo and BMC, but it has had the long-term effect of almost burying ProContinental as a viable option, and we have arrived at a point where it is more beneficial - or at least is perceived as more beneficial - for a rider like Leopold König to be third or fourth in line in the Sky mountain train than to be leading GT GCs for a ProContinental team. The wildcard teams increasingly do not have the opportunity to provide any actual wildness, as their best ticket to remaining at the same level is a sprinter (see the success of Coquard and Bouhanni in the ranking above), and with the UCI's survey having indicated that there is an increasing sense of frustration among fans at the ever-widening gap between the haves and have nots of the péloton, going full football with it may be the best way to enable development of young riders and protect the ProContinental level from being made entirely redundant, without taking action to restrict the imbalance caused by the financial clout of the top teams, which the UCI are clearly reluctant to do. Do I want a system whereby teams with illustrious histories like Androni, Bardiani or Direct Energie are reduced to serving as mercenary feeders? Of course not. Do I want a system where Caja Rural can't enter three of their strongest riders in their Vuelta team because they're on loan from Astana or Movistar? Of course not. But I can see this being a distinct possibility in the near future, and I'd also rather that than see a generation of lost talents because either they were cast aside too early in the hunt for the next big thing and not given fair chance to develop, or a generation of GC battles where all the viable contenders are divided into two or three teams and the rest of the startlist is cannon fodder. While he may have been egotistical, tantrum-prone and have failed to understand the realities of professional cycling beyond his incredible good fortune in year 1, Rick Delaney was right on one count: although I didn't believe in, or agree with, what he thought it needed, it can't be denied from looking at the statistics that ProContinental is dying slowly, and something needs to change in the way cycling teams do business in order to save it.
 
I'd prefer a very simple US based system to this, however that is likely not going to happen due to the number of countries involved with cycling. In US based sports, free agency does not start until the end of the season which is when the contract of the athlete ends. While under contract for a team it is against the rules for that athlete to have any contact with another team for contract negotiations and agents are not allowed to do anything except send out "feelers" to get an idea of what the market may bear for an athlete. Agents and athletes have been both fined and suspended for contract negotiations while under contract and teams have been fined and given other penalties (such as a reduction of draft choices) for contract negotiations with athletes under contract with another team. Obviously you can negotiation with an athlete on your team while he's under contract. Of course only Major League Baseball doesn't have some form of salary cap of the major 4 sports. The other 3 have salary caps of one form or another and have shown hard caps are more successful in spreading talent and making the sport more competitive across the board than soft caps are. Although you can't do anything about poor management (see Buffalo Bills and NY Jets for proof). Baseball and hockey have their own minor league systems in which NHL and MLB teams have teams in each of the lower tiers while the NFL and NBA use the college sports system as their version of a minor league system. (Colleges due have baseball and hockey and those players do get drafted, but go to the minors from college not the majors). In baseball and hockey players in the minors cannot be signed by other top league teams while they are under contract, however they can be traded which happens all the time. You'll usually see trades near the MLB or NHL trade deadline that includes specific minor league prospects or include "player to be named later" and that is always a minor league prospect. Just maybe the NHL and MLB system is what they should look at for how to develop talent AND how to keep talent for top level teams. This would require each top level team to have lower level teams which they support in different ways (but not necessarily own). It would also prevent other teams from poaching talent on their lower level teams. Is there something in laws in Europe that prevent sports teams over there from trading players? (Remember baseball and hockey have teams in both US and Canada.)

Of course in the US athletes can always fire their agent if they don't like the way the agent is handling things or for any other reason they can come up or no reason at all other than they want to change who represents them.
 
Ultimately, I would say most riders would prefer to ride the biggest races and have the best chance at the biggest possible paycheck which is likely to be WT, so any dilution of talent at ProContinental level is likely to be expected.

Short of reducing mandatory participation and increasing the number of wildcard teams there is also little to be done to make the calendar more attractive to non-WT teams.

I suppose the half-WT races that UCI created are probably a reasonably good thing though in terms of exposure for ProContintal teams.

The crazily improbable solution is perhaps to copy NHL. And I don't mean the draft.

Make the team where a rider turns pro retain their rights for more than 2 years, no buyouts, nothing. Say, something like 4 years guaranteed. Difficult, because the shelf life of a ProContinental team might not be that long, however the upside might be having a performing top talent on the books by year 3 or 4 to help with the sponsorship search.

Now of course the reasonable counter-argument would be that WT teams would still try to hoard all the top talent. This where the maximum salary comes in. Sure, cycling is not NHL and the operating environments are less heterogeneous, but I believe that a reasonable cap for new professionals can be set to make them equally affordable to both WT and ProConti teams.

So, the imperfect solution is perhaps restricting the earning potential of new professionals to ensure some sort of parity.
 
Ultimately, I would say most riders would prefer to ride the biggest races and have the best chance at the biggest possible paycheck which is likely to be WT, so any dilution of talent at ProContinental level is likely to be expected.

Short of reducing mandatory participation and increasing the number of wildcard teams there is also little to be done to make the calendar more attractive to non-WT teams.

I suppose the half-WT races that UCI created are probably a reasonably good thing though in terms of exposure for ProContintal teams.

The crazily improbable solution is perhaps to copy NHL. And I don't mean the draft.

Make the team where a rider turns pro retain their rights for more than 2 years, no buyouts, nothing. Say, something like 4 years guaranteed. Difficult, because the shelf life of a ProContinental team might not be that long, however the upside might be having a performing top talent on the books by year 3 or 4 to help with the sponsorship search.

Now of course the reasonable counter-argument would be that WT teams would still try to hoard all the top talent. This where the maximum salary comes in. Sure, cycling is not NHL and the operating environments are less heterogeneous, but I believe that a reasonable cap for new professionals can be set to make them equally affordable to both WT and ProConti teams.

So, the imperfect solution is perhaps restricting the earning potential of new professionals to ensure some sort of parity.
You went to the same place I did at about the same time (although I included MLB as well). Yeah, not the draft, which would never work in cycling. I went further than you did. However, I agree with your idea of a minimum 4 years guaranteed.
 

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