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Analysis: Development team news highlights varying models

The final week of November has provided stark contrast in the fortunes of American development teams.

On Tuesday, the Cal Giant-Specialized team announced that its U23 national time trial champion, Evan Huffman, had signed a two-year professional contract with Astana. The signing did not feel like the product of any sort of organized rider development pipeline, as few would quickly associate the West Coast talent farm with the Kazakh-backed WorldTour team. But there is a common thread – the Specialized logo on the downtube of both teams’ bikes. For Specialized and Cal Giant, moves like Huffman’s are all part of a bigger development plan, one in which riders start and finish their careers on the big red S.

“The whole model being that is to have a Specialized junior program graduate into our development program and then into a Specialized WorldTour team,” said Cal Giant manager Anthony Gallino.

The day after Huffman’s triumph was announced, news broke that Chipotle-First Solar, the development arm of Slipstream sports, had released all of its riders from their contracts. According to riders, they were set free to seek other employment in August, when sponsor Chipotle announced it would stop backing the team at the end of the year. The team hinted in late August that a new sponsor for the Garmin-Sharp feeder team was close to being signed, but the deal failed to materialize. The team hasn’t returned VeloNews’ inquiries on the status of the team.

Coming in rapid succession, the two stories highlighted the roller coaster of life on the cusp of cycling greatness. They also emphasized the existence of two differing approaches to developing new talent and moving it upstream to the WorldTour level, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.

The first approach, used by Slipstream, relies on the tested model of top-tier teams owning their own amateur or continental development teams, a strategy teams like Rabobank and Mapei have also pursued. The second, as described by Gallino, relies on a more diversified network of teams connected by a common sponsor that works to keep talent moving upwards through the network of teams it backs.

Different, to be sure, but is one model better than the other?

Right up until its imminent closing was revealed, it was hard to argue with Slipstream Sports’ vertical, team-owned approach to rider development. For a development squad, the advantages of the familial association with a top flight WorldTour team are as powerful as they are apparent. The direct access to resources and connections that a feeder team has — the support of a European service course, connections with race organizers, access to training and racing expertise — pay dividends when it comes to preparing riders for the next step up the ladder.

For riders in a system like Slipstream’s, there is a clear, though not guaranteed, route from the development team to the WorldTour. It shows at Garmin, which has been successful at populating its WorldTour ranks with the fruits of its development squad. Recent call-ups from the development team include Alex Howes, Michel and Raymond Kreder, and Peter Stetina. The team announced in November that Steele Von Hoff and Lachlan Morton would both make the transition for the 2013 season. It now appears they will be the last to do so.

But the model has its downsides as well. When the top-tier team closes its doors, the development structure is shuttered as well. And if and when hard times do hit, most team owners will be more likely to sacrifice the development team before letting the WorldTour team go hungry. Talent loss, too, is a very real threat. With only a single top team to feed into, there’s a certain amount of luck and timing in matching vacancies and needs of the WorldTour team with a development rider’s skills and readiness to progress. With any misalignment, there’s a real chance that talent a team has nurtured for years can end up in a competitor’s kit. While not officially a RadioShack feeder team, Livestrong’s U23 team saw this firsthand when Taylor Phinney jumped the Lance Armstrong ship in 2010 to sign with BMC Racing.

Specialized’s development model — moving riders up the ranks not through a unified, tiered team structure, but through a network of teams at various levels connected by a common sponsor — holds its own advantages. Compared with the more linear Slipstream model, the sponsor-based approach offers a wider range of “in-network” WorldTour options once a rider is ready to advance. Where talent in the Slipstream system either rises to the Garmin team or goes elsewhere and benefits another team, a rider from a Specialized-backed development team could go to Astana, Saxo-Tinkoff, or Omega Pharma-Quick Step and still give his backer, Specialized, the same return on investment. For the rider, the sponsor-based system opens up more connections and potential employers.

The system also has the advantage of being decoupled from the financial misfortunes of any single team. The loss of a WorldTour team at the top of the pipeline does not wipe out the development teams underneath, leaving them intact and ready to supply the next top-tier team the sponsor backs.

As with the Slipstream model, there are limits to the Specialized model. To work, it requires a sponsor very much like Specialized, one that is active at all levels of the sport, year after year, and willing and able to make, maintain, and capitalize on the connections that make the system work. The sponsor’s investment in teams must also be substantial enough that they can hope to hold some sway in recruiting decisions, and they must have the ear of decision-makers within the teams. Sponsors that fit the requirements are few and far between, and almost always lean toward the endemic. That means the model may not be easily replicable, save for a few big players in the bike and component business.

Despite its recent success, Specialized’s decentralized, sponsor-linked development plan remains relatively unproven. While Cal Giant began in 2001, Huffman is the first Cal Giant rider to move onto a Specialized-backed WorldTour team, following the Specialized “red thread,” as Gallino terms it, all the way to the top.

Other riders from Cal Giant have made big impacts and gone on to the professional ranks, of course, but neither of the biggest examples are true development stories. Andrew Talansky graduated from the program in 2010, but went not to a Specialized team, but to Garmin, where he’s since finished seventh in the 2012 Vuelta a España. And prior to his stint with Cal Giant, he had already ridden for Amore & Vita in Italy. Ken Hanson won the 2008 elite national criterium championship for Cal Giant, and signed with the ascendant Team Type 1 the next year. But like Talansky, Hanson had already ridden professionally, racing domestically and abroad for BMC Racing in 2007. Huffman’s leap from Cal Giant to Astana may be the start of a great development model, but currently it’s a fairly isolated data point.

Further, the sponsor chain is not one that riders are guaranteed to follow. Over at Trek-backed Bontrager-Livestrong, Axel Merckx and Reed McAlvin have proven adept at pushing their riders to the WorldTour, with no fewer than nine riders graduating in four years. But only four of them — Ben King, Jesse Sergent, Björn Selander and George Bennett — have signed with Trek squads. Many of the team’s biggest prospects, including Phinney, Joe Dombrowski and Alex Dowsett, have left for BMC or Pinarello-backed WorldTour squads.

So is one model better than the other? Is creating sponsor-based development networks preferable to tiered team structures owned by top-level teams? On one hand, it appears Cal Giant may have outlived the Slipstream development team, and if Specialized commits to a lasting role in the talent development business, there’s little reason to doubt its ability to make an impact. On the other, the amount of talent that Slipstream has developed within its ranks and retained at Garmin speaks to the dependability of the tiered system. And in fact, there’s little reason both approaches can’t coexist.

The coming years may reveal more about how effective the Specialized model is as current Cal Giant riders like 19-year-old Torey Philipp continue to mature. Philipp raced with the Team Specialized Racing Juniors before moving on to Cal Giant, and an eventual move to one of the brand’s WorldTour teams — whichever they may be when the time comes — would make for a three-tiered success story.

And while tiered team structures may be on the ropes at the moment, it doesn’t appear that they’ll vanish any time soon. Chipotle may shutter, and with Rabobank’s withdrawal from professional cycling in the wake of the Armstrong scandal, that squad’s development team is in a tenuous position as well. But on November 21, Saxo Bank announced that it was creating a continental-level development team under the Ceramica Flaminia banner. It remains to be seen what bikes the team will be riding, but if it’s Specialized, Riis Cycling will close the circle for the California bike brand.

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