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Jonathan Vaughters: ‘It’s painful to watch when talent walks out the door’

'The bigger teams, they can sign, retain and poach the best talent from smaller teams. It’s a rough game. You’ve got to be really scrappy,' says American team boss.

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EF-Education EasyPost boss Jonathan Vaughters has lamented the loss of Daniel Martínez and Sergio Higuita, claiming that the rich teams control the transfer market while teams with weaker financial clout have their best riders poached.

The comments were made during a podcast interview with Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt.

Vaughters, who has run a men’s professional team since 2008, has seen a number of high-profile riders slip through his fingers over the years. In 2009, Bradley Wiggins jumped ship to Team Sky after finishing a surprise fourth in the Tour de France, while in the last two years the American team boss has seen Higuita make a big-money move to Bora-Hansgrohe and Martínez depart for Ineos Grenadiers.

The disparity in team finances within the men’s WorldTour means that squads such as Ineos-Grenadiers, UAE Team Emirates, and Jumbo-Visma can effectively outbid their rivals when it comes to wages.

The transfer market has shifted in the last few years with teams setting up talent spotting departments that seek out junior riders who have the potential to make it at the top level. This move has seen young riders sign multi-year contracts with the likes of Egan Bernal, Tadej Pogačar, and now Tom Pidcock tied down on long-term deals as squads look to lock up their most prized assets. Those marquee riders rarely move teams until the twilight of their careers, which means that teams, therefore, have to regularly look for younger and younger talent.

“Everyone is looking for the hidden gem,” Vaughters said on a recent podcast.

“Everyone is looking for the next Tadej Pogačar, who comes from a small-market country, and who had a solid junior and U23 career but wasn’t the most superlative junior or U23 out there, but then ended up being this incredible rider that he is today. People are far more focussed on that than they are than looking at talent that already exists and then transferring that across.”

“If you look, most of the time, your prolific Tour de France winners don’t change teams in their careers. Where they came on, and where they won their first Tour de France, that’s where they stayed most of their career. Pogačar is following that path. So the key is identifying talent preemptively and then developing it. It’s a much harder road to go down because — you know as well as I do — that the data says that out of five great U23 or junior riders that I pick four will end up really mediocre and it’s only one that ends up being great.”

Vaughters signed both Higuita and Martínez when they were both relatively unheralded. They forged careers for themselves in Europe via the Slipstream squad that Vaughters runs but at the end of 2020 Martínez was picked up by Ineos-Grenadiers on a three-year deal. Higuita left twelve months later for Bora-Hansgrohe and both riders have flourished.

Martínez was critical in helping Bernal win the 2021 Giro d’Italia, while the 25-year-old recently won the Tour of the Basque country. Higuita won the Vuelta a Catalunya in March and will be a contender for the Ardennes classics later this month.

“Then as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, and it’s been pretty painful for me to watch, Sergio Higuita and Dani Martínez, both of those guys who I picked when they were 20 years old and developed them in our program, and we weren’t able to come up with the funds at the right time to keep them,” Vaughters added.

“They’ve gone off and won two of the most important stage races in the world. It’s not just talent identification because for sure Ineos is going to get a lot more out of Dani because I was building Dani from his early years. Now Ineos gets the dividends of that. That’s hard but that’s the reality of our sport, that isn’t like the NFL. The wealthier teams will always be able to pick the best talent and UAE are able to retain that talent because they’re not at risk of another team paying Pogačar more because they can always beat the offer on that. Just ask uncle oil for more money. Right? The bigger teams – they can sign, retain and poach the best talent from smaller teams. It’s a rough game. You’ve got to be really scrappy.”