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