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Peloton’s musical chairs sometimes a cruel game

Riders still without a contract face a precarious future as 2014 comes to a close, and several big names are still waiting on the sidelines

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Down to the wire. It happens every fall. Cycling’s transfer window, called the “silly season,” is a time of tension and nerves for dozens of riders heading into the winter still sitting on the bubble.

What happens over the next few weeks will decide the fate of plenty across the peloton, ranging from older riders trying to hang on for one more season, to young guns still scratching to secure their place in the big leagues.

“If you do not have a contract by now for next year, it’s very complicated,” said rider agent Andrew McQuaid, who represents such riders as Richie Porte and Nicolas Roche. “Team budgets are mostly closed, and plans are already set for the coming year.”

Cycling’s musical chairs is a high-risk game built on relationships, luck, and connections, all played out in the brutal reality of a wide-open, free-agent market. Injuries, crashes, and a few inches away from a big win and second place can mean the difference between staying in the game or going home, usually for good. Once on a top team, riders are forever playing a nervous balancing act of staying in the game, especially in a sport where contracts longer than two years are reserved for a handful of top superstars, such as Alberto Contador and Peter Sagan.

Every season has its wrinkles and quirks. Last year saw the closure of two UCI ProTeams, with Euskaltel-Euskadi and Vacansoleil-DCM both shutting down. With the WorldTour shrinking to 18 teams, there was a flood of riders trying to secure contracts.

A few high-profile deals

Going into 2014-15 saw relative stability in the free-agent market. Despite a few high-profile moves, including Sagan’s transfer to Tinkoff-Saxo for three years, and Edvald Boasson Hagen’s move to MTN-Qhubeka, this year sees most major teams in the peloton relatively quiet on the transfer market.

“We were quiet this year in terms of transfers. We only have two new riders for 2015,” said Orica-GreenEdge sport director Matthew White. “We are building the young talent we have, and don’t have a lot of new guys entering the team. We’re happy with what we have right now.”

The major exception was the merger of Garmin-Sharp and Cannondale at the WorldTour level, which saw a few riders squeezed out as the two teams combined rosters. Plus, the on-again, off-again project involving Formula One driver Fernando Alonso, which looks to be targeting 2016, added another unknown twist to the market.

“There were three major factors in the market this year,” McQuaid said. “First, the Alonso team didn’t happen, and second, the Cannondale, Garmin merger. Another big factor is teams are starting to look at reducing their teams in light of possible reduction of squads to 22 riders in the future.”

McQuaid was referring to ongoing discussions to reform the UCI racing calendar, which could see a major reduction from team rosters from 30 to as low as 22 per day. Those details still need to be hammered out, but a new-look calendar could be in place by as soon as 2017, so teams already have that on their radars. If that plays out, the game of musical chairs will only get tighter in the coming seasons.

Several teams were active in the rider market, including MTN-Qhubeka, which saw the African-based team pick up Boasson Hagen (Sky), Theo Bos (Belkin), Tyler Farrar (Garmin), and Matthew Goss (Orica). In addition to Sagan, Tinkoff picked up Ivan Basso (Cannondale), Robert Kiserlovski (Astana), and Pavel Brutt (Katusha).

Most of the high-profile transfer deals are tacitly agreed upon months before the official August 1 opening of the trading season. Giovanni Lombardi, the ex-pro who is now Sagan’s agent, said it took months to hammer out all the details in Sagan’s move from Cannondale to Tinkoff.

This season also saw a flood of high-profile retirements, including Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), who retires in February, Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing), Jens Voigt and Danilo Hondo (Trek), David Millar (Garmin), Karsten Kroon and Nicki Sorensen (Tinkoff), and such U.S.-based riders as Jeff Louder, Ben Day, Martijn Maaskant, and JJ Haedo.

Nervous on the bubble

By November, anyone still sitting on the sidelines is rightfully nervous they might have to find a new line of work.

There are a few big names still waiting to see how their future shakes out. On Sunday, Baden Cooke confirmed to VeloNews that 2013 Vuelta a España winner Chris Horner, 43, has signed with a U.S. team. 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez, 36, will not be returning to BMC after one season with the U.S.-registered team, and is waiting to see whether or not he continues competing.

Veteran Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, 42, was not re-upped with Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and is among several Italians considering his options.

“I’d like to race for another year or two, but I could stop and start a new life,” Petacchi told Tutto Bici. “What can I say? I hope that I can find a team that works out for me, an ‘old man’ who doesn’t feel so old, and who would like to continue.”

Other riders with uncertain futures include Gert Steegmans (Omega Pharma), former Tour of Flanders winner Nick Nuyens, Thomas Dekker, and Steele Van Hoff (all Garmin). Valerio Agnoli (Astana), Davide Vigano (Caja Rural), Sylvester Szmyd (Movistar), Vladimir Gusev (Katusha), Paolo Longho Borghini (Cannondale), Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana), and Thomas Peterson (Giant-Shimano) are other veterans who have not extended with their respective teams and whose futures remain unconfirmed.

It helps to have an agent, and there are dozens of representatives working on the behalf of riders. A good agent is well-connected and is constantly trolling the peloton looking for leads and securing rides for their riders, which allows the racers to focus on racing while the agent does the “dirty work” of negotiating salaries and conditions.

But even that is no guarantee, especially for riders who work as “gregarios” and post few individual results.

“It is wrong that a rider like Longo Borghini doesn’t have a contract for next season,” said Lombardi, who is Longo Borghini’s agent. “Teams would rather have a rider who can win a race or two a season, and not work at all, rather than someone who will give their body and soul for their team captains. Teams are wrong in this point. A big captain needs to have riders with whom they can be 100 percent confident, and always be at their side.”

The importance of relationships cannot be underestimated. Francisco Ventoso was “saved” last week by Movistar when the team found a slot, and money, to keep him in the bigs for another season. Ventoso was a former winner who slotted into a leadout role for Juan José Lobato and almost got squeezed out.

“Running a team today is much more complicated than it was in the 1980s,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué. “In 1987, our entire team budget was 70,000 euros. Today, the teams are much bigger and more international. It’s not easy to make all the pieces fit. Ventoso is an important rider to us, and we made it work.”

Riders can also find contracts thanks to key financial backing. It’s not uncommon for sponsors to pay a team to slot a rider on their lineup. The latest example was Dan Craven from Namibia, who joined Europcar mid-season in 2014 after a new team co-sponsor from Africa signed on. He quickly proved his worth, finishing the Vuelta a España, and is already confirmed to stay with the team for 2015.

Then there’s always hope. After 2013, Horner didn’t sign with Lampre-Merida until January. Adam Blythe went from the WorldTour in 2013 with BMC Racing to the Continental level, a no-man’s land that’s usually a one-way street, but Orica picked him up for 2015. Even more dramatic was Dominique Rollin, who didn’t even race in 2014, only to be picked up by Cofidis to help ex-FDJ teammate Nacer Bouhanni in the sprints.

Coming into December, there’s nothing trivial about “silly season” for riders who are caught out without a contract as 2014 comes to a close.