The end of a sea­son sig­nals a round of mu­si­cal chairs, but what makes r iders vul­ner­a­ble to los­ing their spot?

Procycling - - CONTENTS -

In­sight, opin­ion and in­ter­views

An­other year draws to a close and an­other pool of riders in the men’s pelo­ton find them­selves with­out con­tracts, writes Richard Abra­ham. There hasn’t been the con­trac­tual su­per­nova of a World­Tour team demise that has shaken pre­vi­ous win­ters; BMC’s merger with CCC saw all of their top tier riders find em­ploy­ment and Patrick Le­fe­vere con­vinced win­dow man­u­fac­turer De­ce­un­inck to save 2018’s most suc­cess­ful team from its im­pend­ing sport­ing de­fen­es­tra­tion.

Yet World­Tour squads con­tinue to shrink, due, chiefly, to the reg­u­lated one­man re­duc­tion in team sizes at World­Tour races that was in­tro­duced in 2018. In 2014 the mean World­Tour squad size at the end of the sea­son was 30.4 riders; in 2019, that av­er­age may be less than 27.

With jobs dis­ap­pear­ing from the World­Tour at a rate of around 10 per year, plus the merger of ProCon­ti­nen­tal teams Véran­das Willems and Room­pot and the abrupt mid-sea­son demise of se­cond-tier bed­fel­lows Aqua Blue Sport, there are no­table riders left feel­ing the crunch. At the time of writ­ing, Tour stage win­ner Ra­mu­nas Navar­dauskas, moun­tain stal­wart Gio­vanni Vis­conti, re­li­able do­mes­tique Philip Deignan and for­mer promis­ing young climber Kenny Elis­sonde had no deal.

One side likes to see this as a har­bin­ger of the sport’s doom on a dole sheet. The other says that this is just its nat­u­ral cy­cle: riders come, riders go but es­sen­tially there is a fi­nite num­ber of spaces in the ecosys­tem, which is how it’s al­ways been and how it al­ways will be.

A par­tic­u­lar is­sue this time around has been the hand dealt to younger riders. James Shaw, the 22 year-old Brit whose two-year neo-pro deal with Lotto Soudal sent him into con­trac­tual limbo un­der­lined the dif­fi­culty of de­vel­op­ing at World­Tour level in the cur­rent cli­mate.

“It means younger guys who aren’t at their phys­i­cal peak, such as my­self, strug­gle to make those big races now that the UCI have taken a man out of ev­ery team,” he told the Cy­cling Pod­cast. Al­lan Peiper, man­ager at BMC and soon to be DS at an­other World­Tour out­fit, agrees. He told Pro­cy­cling that “at 23 or 24 riders there is no de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme within a pro cy­cling team. That’s the bot­tom line.”

The World­Tour re­ward struc­ture still en­cour­ages top teams to hire ex­pen­sive lead­ers and their sup­port riders in or­der to guar­an­tee points. Teams have less money left to send young­sters to smaller races, and fewer other riders to do them ow­ing to the 85 race day an­nual limit put in place in 2017. They also have less wrig­gle room to take a punt on a dark horse by hir­ing a young rider or an un­proven out­lier who could just come good. No­body fan­cies a flut­ter when ev­ery race mat­ters.

As a con­se­quence, many riders are find­ing that the win­dow in which to prove them­selves is shrink­ing. This Catch-22 isn’t just lim­ited to neo-pros, and any rider with­out a proven spe­cial­ism or track record is at risk of be­ing the first to go or the last to get picked up.

“The dan­ger is that riders get into teams where they don’t have a vis­i­ble leader [to help], they’re not get­ting re­sults of their own and they don’t have any points,” Peiper adds. “The dan­ger is they get into that ex­pend­able zone.”

One left­field so­lu­tion to avoid be­com­ing an ex­pend­able is to build a pro­file away from sport­ing per­for­mance, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing mar­ket­ing cap­i­tal in­de­pen­dent of re­sults. The likes of Law­son Crad­dock, the stoic lanterne rouge of the Tour de France, and Larry War­basse and Conor Dunne of the ‘No Go Tour’, made names for them­selves with­out win­ning races.

But it’s a bit like those pub­lic­ity stunts where world fa­mous mu­si­cians busk in the sub­way and no-one bats an eye­lid. The theatre is an in­trin­sic part of the act. Crad­dock’s de­fi­ance in the face of in­jury would not have made the same waves had it not taken place at the Tour de France. No-one would have both­ered about two Bel­gians bike-pack­ing from Italy were they not World­Tour riders Thomas De Gendt and Tim Wel­lens. Put it this way: if a Ger­man shouts “shut up legs” in a for­est but there’s no-one there to hear him, does he make a sound? These kooky ex­ploits only mat­ter be­cause the teams and their riders are din­ing at the top ta­ble. For the spon­sors, the teams and their pub­lic, it still boils down to per­for­mance. Step up or step out. It can be a bit­ter pill for tal­ented riders to swal­low, but those con­tem­plat­ing life out­side the sport next sea­son have to come to term with that harsh re­al­ity: pro cy­cling is still as cut-throat as ever.

Sky's moun­tain do­mes­tique Elis­sonde is among those still with­out a 2019 dealShaw's sea­son ends with­out a con­tract and with a bro­ken col­lar­bone at Il Lom­bar­dia

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