MTN will sign Cavendish only if he brings big money with him

MTN-Qhubeka and Cavendish have been talking, but a deal would be contingent on the British sprinter bringing a major co-sponsor on board.

The rumors have been flying for weeks: Mark Cavendish is heading to MTN-Qhubeka.

Could it be true? MTN-Qhubeka general manager Brian Smith confirmed there has been contact between the Africa-registered team and the Etixx-Quick-Step sprinter, but said a deal would hinge on Cavendish bringing his own sponsor to the team.

“The rumor is true. We have had conversations with Cavendish’s agent,” Smith said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “Cavendish would help the team, in PR and with his success, but at this moment, we cannot afford Mark Cavendish.”

Cavendish is at the end of his three-year deal with the Belgian outfit, and has been testing the market. There were other rumors that Marcel Kittel would break the final year of his contract with Giant-Alpecin to join Etixx, but Kittel’s agent said last week the German sprinter will finish out his 2016 contract with Giant.

It’s possible that Cavendish will stay with Etixx, but general manager Patrick Lefevere told journalists that a decision won’t be made until possibly as late as the end of September.

One option is that Cavendish finds an important co-sponsor to bring with him to another team, covering his salary as well as those of a few key teammates and staffers in the Cavendish entourage. Such a move would also lay the groundwork for a possible Cavendish-owned team a few years down the road.

Even if Cavendish isn’t fetching the same price he had when he signed with Etixx in 2013, Smith said there is no room in MTN’s current budget of about 7.5 million euros to sign a rider with Cavendish’s required paycheck.

“If Mark Cavendish comes with a large sponsor to pay his salary, we’re open to talking. Who wouldn’t be?” Smith said. “I’m happy that Mark would consider racing with us. It means we’re doing something right.”

For now, Smith said the team is sticking with its core group of riders that earned cycling’s first Tour de France appearance for an African team and a stage win to boot.

MTN-Qhubeka was very active on the rider market last year, signing more than a half-dozen established pros to help solidify the team’s base coming into 2015. Riders such as Tyler Farrar, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Steve Cummings, Matthew Brammeier, and Theo Bos are all on two-year deals. Smith did suggest that Matt Goss’s one-year contract will not be extended.

Smith also confirmed that a title sponsor is in place to take over for the exiting MTN, and it might be a few more weeks before it will be revealed to the public, but assured the team’s budget is solid for the next three years.

For 2016, the team is looking to sign two or three young African prospects, and perhaps one or two more seasoned European pros, but added that the deciding factor isn’t so much a rider’s production, but rather how they fit into the team’s vision of developing an African grand tour contender over the next few years.

In that sense, a major star like Cavendish or a confirmed GC contender might not work even if Smith could afford to sign the paycheck right now.

“This team is about giving riders opportunities, and letting them race for themselves. That’s how we won stages in both the Tour and Vuelta,” he said. “So bringing in a big GC rider or a big sprinter, we would have to consider how it would fit in. It would change the dynamics of the team a lot. Do we need a rider like Mark Cavendish? I don’t think we do.”

Not unless he brings a few million dollars with a new sponsor.