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Contador brother raises alarm over talent poaching, young riders turning pro too soon

The manager of one of Spain's top development teams is worried that new rules will hurt smaller squads.

Fran Contador, brother and manager of retired racing star Alberto Contador, is raising the alarm bells over new rules that could hurt lower-level teams.

The Contador brothers, along with ex-pro Ivan Basso and others, run the Continental-level team under the banner of the Alberto Contador Foundation. For 2020, it will race as Kometa-Xstra, with a new Danish co-sponsor coming on board. Despite rumors the team would jump to the Professional Continental level — set to be rebranded as the ProTeam category next season — the team will continue to develop young talent at cycling’s third tier.

Contador, speaking in an interview posted on the team’s website, echoed growing concerns across the peloton about new rules set to be introduced for 2020 that will expand the WorldTour to 19 teams, and put the pinch on lower category teams.

“The WorldTour becomes an even more closed category,” Fran Contador said. “Personally I think that a closed league is a mistake. The issue of invitations to races changes, or rather worsens, for teams in the professional continental category. We’ll see how it evolves next year and its consequences in the following years. Sponsors must be pampered. We are not in a sport where sponsorship is abundant.”

Contador’s comments come as other players inside the peloton have complained about new changes having a sweeping impact on elite men’s professional racing, without much input from stakeholders. Groups ranging from Velon, the AIGCP and the Italian racing league — which largely represent WorldTour and Professional Continental teams — have all made formal complaints about the UCI’s coming plans.

Contador also raised the alarm flag about the consequences for smaller, development teams racing at the third-tier Continental level. Contador said larger teams are poaching talent that the teams develop without the teams having any financial interest or gain, as well as smaller teams seeing fewer racing possibilities.

Enric Mas learned the ropes with the Contadors’ team before stepping up to WorldTour. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Several Spanish riders have come out of the Contador program to join the WorldTour, including the likes of Enric Mas (Deceuninck-Quick-Step to Movistar for 2020). For 2020, Juan Pedro López and Michel Ries (Trek-Segafredo), Stefano Oldani (Lotto-Soudal) and Carlos Rodríguez (Team Ineos) all leave the team for the WorldTour.

Contador said he’s proud of the growing number of riders leaving their program to join the WorldTour ranks, but cautioned that rule changes could snuff out the development programs.

“I also think that the UCI should implement rules to protect sponsors who bet on more formative projects [that are] not so focused on sporting success,” Contador said. “Because we run the risk that teams of the highest category, with their economic potential, take advantage of these structures and squeeze them. And in the end they close.”

Contador’s comments come as an unprecedented number of promising riders are turning pro and joining the WorldTour at an even younger age. Several riders are skipping racing at the U23 or development level altogether, and going straight to the WorldTour. In 2019, Remco Evenepoel had a tremendous rookie season at Deceuninck-Quick-Step. The 18-year-old Rodríguez dropped out of school and leaves the Alberto Contador Foundation to join Team Ineos on a WorldTour contract for four seasons starting in 2020.

Under the current system, riders are free to change teams in the open market. That leads to a fluid job market, with short-term contracts. That’s good for successful riders, but can often see riders with a lack of results or health problems losing their job. From the team’s perspective, more than a few have complained that top-dollar teams can poach their younger riders that teams have invested time and money to develop.

Some have even suggested that teams, especially at the development level, should be financially compensated when young riders make the leap to the WorldTour. Some said this lack of financial incentive was one of the reasons that highly effective development teams under the Quick-Step and BMC Racing banners closed shop.

Contador worried about riders turning pro too early, and the financial implications it has for the teams trying to support junior and U23 riders.

Contador Foundation
Fran Contador, Alberto’s older brother, is the brains behind the Foundation. Photo: Polartec

“The [UCI] should seriously consider the suitability of establishing some guidelines, some rules of the game, which in similar cases or at certain ages protect these training projects and even give them stability to continue working,” Contador said. “Some economic clause, for example, aimed exclusively at youth squads, schools … some kind of right to education.

“I’m not going to say that we should stop measuring the heights of competition socks, but at least diversify the priorities,” he continued. “In the end, what is at stake is the future of this beautiful sport.”

Contador hinted that the team considered moving to the Professional Continental level for 2020, but will wait to see how the new rules develop. He said the team’s long-term “dream” goal is to attain for the WorldTour, but right now, he said the team is taking things slow to build a solid foundation.

“[Going to Professional Continental] is the most natural evolution. It would not be bad at all to give it,” he said. “The WorldTour? It is another dream, it would be the culmination of all the work that we have been developing in the Foundation for almost a decade. On some occasions, we have pointed out my brother Alberto, Ivan Basso or myself that we feel ready to make the leap to the WorldTour if this opportunity presents itself. But today we still think about adding stages in the framework of this comprehensive project linked to cycling that we have in the Alberto Contador Foundation.”