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Wheeling and dealing: how pro transfers get done

In-depth
12 Aug 2021
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Pros are looking for new teams and teams are looking for new talent. Cyclist finds out how the deals happen

WordsJames Witts Illustrations: Seamus Jennings

Having just won a stage of the Giro d’Italia, Peter Sagan is in jovial mood during his post-race interview, when the reporter asks about a potential change of team at the end of the season.

‘It’s mooted that Deceuninck-QuickStep, Israel Start-Up Nation and Movistar are all interested,’ poses the reporter.

‘So you see I have a choice,’ laughs Sagan. ‘I still have to decide.’

The 31-year-old Slovak is out of contract this year, and at the time of writing there is no sign that Bora-Hansgrohe, his team since 2017, will extend his tenure.

Sagan has since confirmed that he will ride for Team TotalEnergies in 2022. He probably already knows that as he is faced with the question but, due to UCI rules on moving between WorldTour teams, public pronouncements can’t be made until 1st August, and even once the season is over riders cannot be seen in their new team colours until 1st January the following year – something that caused a tricky situation for Cyclist and Sagan a few years back…

Rules is rules

It’s early December 2014 and Cyclist is interviewing Peter Sagan in Gran Canaria where his new Tinkoff-Saxo team is having a training camp. However, as the 24-year-old is still officially signed with Cannondale until 1st January 2015, he can’t be seen in his new kit.

So while Sagan can happily discuss how delighted he is to be joining the team of billionaire Oleg Tinkov, he has to join his yellow army on training rides adorned in bright green Cannondale kit. Any pictures of Sagan in his new kit have to be taken surreptitiously in his hotel room, with strict instructions from the team’s press officer not to release them until 1st January. 

It will be the same story later this year for TotalEnergies, as this strange transfer anomaly remains. What will differ will be Sagan’s wage packet, his diminishing stature meaning he’ll surely earn less than his current reported $5 million salary, which makes him the best-paid pro in the peloton.

Of course, Sagan will leave the negotiations to the intermediaries who are exerting an increasing influence on the makeup of WorldTour teams: the agents.

‘We deal with 20 to 25 agents from around the world,’ says UAE Team Emirates principal Mauro Gianetti. ‘We have good relationships with them. What are they asking for? What are we asking for? Do all parties agree? There needs to be honesty all round.’

Rise of the agent

The word ‘honesty’ may be at odds with the picture many paint of agents – one of greedy, nefarious characters pulling the strings while hiding off camera until there’s a clear personal agenda. A sort of Dominic Cummings character but lacking a prickly rose bush. It’s clichéd, though it’s fuelled by machinations such as those at Movistar between team manager Eusebio Unzué and Italian super-agent Giuseppe Acquadro.

Acquadro acted as the primary talent broker for the Spanish team for years, before the relationship publicly ruptured at the 2019 Giro d’Italia. Acquadro declared that one of his riders, Richard Carapaz, who would go on to win, was unhappy with his current contract and wanted a lucrative move to Ineos. Unzué refused the request and, according to reports, Acquadro then declared, ‘Unzué will suffer.’

He has. Since then, Acquadro not only leveraged Carapaz’s move but also negotiated Nairo Quintana’s upping to Arkéa-Samsic and Andrey Amador’s to Ineos. He also played a pivotal role in Ineos gazumping Trek-Segafredo for Colombian climber Iván Sosa in 2019. Acquadro also has Egan Bernal on his books and is the closest the sport has to football power-brokers such as Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola.

Acquadro has been an agent for 16 years, managing aspects of riders’ careers ranging from commercial partnerships to tax and legal advice, and he claims he drives around 70,000km each year attending races at all levels. Working for him are former pro cyclists Koldo Fernández, once of Euskaltel, and Omar Piscina, formerly of Tinkoff.

This hunted-turn-hunter professional change is common, with former Cervélo Test Team rider João Correia a co-founder at Corso, whose client list includes Tao Geoghegan Hart. SEG Cycling, the biggest agency with 70 riders including Dan Martin on its books, also has ex-pros on its agent roster. Then there’s the big-name newcomer, Fabian Cancellara, who’s making as many headlines as an agent as he did as a rider.

The 40-year-old former Roubaix winner brokered one of the most surprising transfers of 2021 when Marc Hirschi moved from DSM to UAE Team Emirates in January, ending his contract one year early. Reasons for the late switch were cited as DSM’s strict rules, including limited massage time and no external coaches. However the €1 million salary at UAE – 14 times the €70,000 Hirschi was earning at DSM – may also have had something to do with it.

‘He’s someone we’d watched for years,’ says Gianetti. ‘Marc is Swiss, I’m Swiss and we made it clear that if one day he became free, we’d be interested. Then I received a call from Fabian who said he might be free. We said yes, we’d like him. And he moved. But we didn’t force it – it’s no good for anyone if you force a move.’

Cycling’s business model means there was no transfer fee, though DSM did receive compensation. ‘But this isn’t football so we’re not talking millions,’ says DSM’s head coach, Rudi Kemna. ‘All parties agreed to the move, albeit ending a contract early is rare. They’re usually only two or three years.’

Why the contracts are so short is arguably down to cycling’s fiscal setup. While football clubs rake in hundreds of millions from TV deals and ticket sales, WorldTour teams are almost totally reliant on sponsorship, whether that’s a major investor such as Ineos chemical group or co-sponsors like Deceuninck windows and QuickStep floors.

This investment and commitment shapes the team’s transfer dealings, with Ineos Grenadiers enjoying the highest annual budget at €50 million, affording them the deepest, strongest lineup on the WorldTour. The lowest budget is reportedly €4 million.

QuickStep sit somewhere in the middle. They do have rare stability in the form of Belgian company QuickStep extending their contract by a further six years, but Deceuninck will depart at the end of this season (probably because most fans keep calling the team just ‘QuickStep’).

Negotiating uncertainty

It’s on this fragile foundation that transfer talks take place. ‘I’d say that around 70% of the teams enter transfer discussions with riders not knowing if their team will continue to exist,’ says Brent Copeland, general manager at Team BikeExchange.

‘The problems are twofold: we have no assets and no identity. We earn no money if a rider moves on and we have no identity because our name keeps changing. On one hand it’s a strong bargaining tool when you’re able to tell a prospective sponsor that their name will be the team’s name.

‘But each time that sponsorship ends, you start from scratch. The only outlier is probably QuickStep, who have cleverly forged the Wolfpack image. But in general, when a rider leaves the fans tend to follow the rider, not stick with the team.’

That’s seen on social media where a star like Sagan has nearly one million Twitter followers compared to his team, Bora-Hansgrohe, who have just 124,000 followers. This unstable business model is why some suggest cycling agents have too much power – they have the resources, contacts and nimbleness to identify young riders all around the world in lieu of imperfect scouting networks, and so drive up wages.

‘I wouldn’t say that, but clearly we don’t have the capacity to employ huge numbers of scouts around the world like you might have in football,’ says Copeland. ‘We count a lot on [lower-division] team managers and directeurs sportif from around the world, although we as a team watch a lot of junior and under-23 races in Italy, Belgium, France and Spain.

‘Being an Australian team we have strong contacts there and some contacts in South America. The problem there is that those contacts are the same for many teams, meaning the negotiations become open, difficult and often down to money.’

That explains why big-budgeted Ineos Grenadiers have eight riders from South and Central America. Then again, you don’t always need a globe-trotting talent scout to identify standout young riders – you just need the results list.

Spotting potential

‘Tadej Pogačar scored some outstanding results as a junior and under-23 for Rog-Ljubljana including winning the Tour de l’Avenir [in 2018; the race is seen as the pinnacle for under-23s],’ says Gianetti at UAE Team Emirates. ‘He was clearly a great talent.’

Gianetti reveals they had been watching Pogačar for a while, albeit in statistical form among a huge number of global riders on their team’s database.

‘It covers every position and helps us make a shortlist. It’s how we ended up looking further into Felix Gross, who we’ve signed for 2022. We were looking for another sprinter, someone from the new generation, and we could see he was strong. He has spent a lot of time on the track but we believe he has the qualities to make a successful move to the road once the Olympics are finished.’

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UAE have also recruited 18-year-old Spanish climber Juan Ayuso until 2025, though Gianetti admits their gaze isn’t solely focussed on two wheeled sport.

‘It can actually be an advantage if a cyclist doesn’t come from cycling,’ he says. ‘Primož Roglič arrived from skiing, where a big part of training focussed on stretching and gym work. He also forged mental resilience from jumping. Remco Evenepoel’s football past arguably helps him, too.’

Teams look at other sports to find athletes who have the physical potential, with a view to teaching the skills at a later date. It’s why Bora-Hansgrohe added ski mountaineer Anton Palzer to their roster this year, his physiological figures apparently off the scale. Now he just has to master riding in a peloton.

Once an athlete’s potential has been spotted, teams then have to confirm the numbers through physical and medical tests.

‘We look at a rider’s power data but specific to their position,’ says Copeland at Team BikeExchange. ‘If we want more information we’ll fly them over to one of our trainers where they’ll do an indoor or outdoor power test. If it’s a climber, for example, we have a specific climb near our service course in Italy that we’ll test them on.

‘The medical staff will also check their history of injuries and illness, plus they’ll look through their biological passport data if things reach that far. There are talks that go on between the different departments before making a decision, which is more difficult with the youngsters because of a lack of data. But it’s not all about the numbers – we want to see if their culture matches that of our team’s culture. This is very important.’

Culture vultures

The importance of culture is something German team DSM (formerly Sunweb) would agree with. The squad has carved a reputation of success from a culture of adherence and sacrifice. It doesn’t work for everyone – hence Hirschi’s switch – but it has gained some big results by focussing on the group rather than one outstanding individual.

DSM is one of the few WorldTour teams to have a development team setup akin to a football club’s academy. In 2019 they opened the doors to their Keep Challenging Centre in Sittard, Limburg, where 23 apartments accommodate most of the female riders and the men’s development team.

‘The development team is vital,’ says head coach Kemna. ‘When you’re a kid, cycling is such an individual sport, but as you progress from juniors through the under-23s it becomes more and more a team sport. For many talented youngsters it’s hard to work as a team, and I don’t just mean in a race picking up bidons. I mean working with a coach or aligning with the team’s goals.

‘Cyclists grow up abiding by rules and find it difficult to take instruction. A swimmer will grow up with a coach beside the pool and an athlete has instant feedback. But a youngster might cycle on their own for five hours, so they become dogmatic about their ideas. When you share knowledge you learn much quicker. But do you have the qualities to accept learning?’

Those that do graduate swiftly, although the team’s budget means it’s hard to compete against those teams, and agents, promising a sizeable wage hike. Still, DSM’s model is sustainable and has generated consistent success. It has also, as Kemna notes, provided development riders with motivation and social wellbeing at a time when most under-23 races have been cancelled due to Covid.

‘I still feel like we’ll lose a generation of cyclists,’ he laments. ‘Let’s just hope the future is a brighter one.’

And where will the future of cycling be? Super-agent Acquadro says Eritrea, Poland and Russia will create the future stars of the sport. The women’s side will also see strong growth, adds Copeland, and he credits agents with boosting female salaries.

‘The sport is expanding, so more teams are coming on board at the same time. The agents have noted this, are getting involved and suddenly prices have shot up. It makes our job harder but, to be fair, they’re getting what they deserve.’

Some might dispute that, suggesting that the hunt for big fees is distorting the market and diluting the sport. Then again, a sport that insists on a rider wearing his previous team’s kit during an off-season training camp is arguably ripe for distorting.

Panic buying

Transfer talks and signings are happening earlier and earlier. Team BikeExchange general manager Brent Copeland ponders why

‘This year the market has been strangely early. If anything, with Covid I’d have expected it to be later. It’s damaging the sport and the riders. If I’ve got a rider who I know is going to be paid until 31st December and his agent is putting his name out to other teams and he signs a contract in March or April, is that rider going to perform at his best all the way through to October? It depends on the character, but I suspect not.

‘I know there’s a rule from the UCI about transfer negotiations but I don’t think it’s applied that strictly. It would be fair if there was a gentleman’s agreement between teams. If not, let’s tighten regulations or even sanction teams for moving too early.

‘I suspect this rush is because everyone is so desperate to find the next Remco Evenepoel or Tadej Pogačar. Whenever a youngster’s name comes up – bang, they’re all over them.

‘What happened with Marc Hirschi definitely triggered the market. Teams think they’re losing out and start phoning around. It spreads like wildfire. There aren’t that many WorldTour teams. As soon as you hear two or three are sniffing around, you think, “I’d better mount the bandwagon so we don’t lose out.”’