Quick-Step logjam: Why the rider market is so active this year

The 2017 transfer season has been one fore the ages, with riders swapping teams at a remarkable rate.

GRUISSAN, France (VN) — Cycling agents have been busier than usual in this year’s silly season.

The 2017-18 rider transfer market is burning up. Despite the fact there are no major teams closing shop or new ones entering the WorldTour, riders and teams have been swapping riders at a clip unseen in years.

What’s been going on? Call it the Quick-Step logjam.

“We were blocking the transfers because nobody knew if the team was stopping or going on,” Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere told VeloNews. “Once we were clear we were staying, things started to move.”

With the Quick-Step bottle-neck finally loosened up, the transfer market started to churn in a frenetic game of cycling’s musical chairs.

Coming into this year’s Tour de France — when most of the major deals are hammered out — Quick-Step still had not firmed up its future.

Everyone’s contract at the long-running Belgian franchise, from the riders to sport directors to the staff, was up at the end of 2017.

By spring, riders were getting nervous about their respective futures. Agents were scurrying behind the scenes to make back-up plans. No one wants to be caught out in the cold without a contract. So when Lefevere quietly put out word early in the Tour that the team’s future was secure, many of these back-up deals were already in motion.

“It’s been good for the agents,” Lefevere sighed. “It’s all about money.”

The silver-haired Lefevere leaned against the Quick-Step team car Sunday morning in Nimes, and sketched out how the transfer market has been playing out this summer.

As he chatted, riders and sport directors came up to shake hands with the powerful veteran manager. Even Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme, in town for a visit, didn’t miss a chance to say hello. Lefevere is one of the peloton’s major personalities.

Transfer season is always packed with intrigue. Fans wonder where the big stars will land. Journalists try to get the latest scoops (and sometimes let their imaginations get the best of them). And agents ply the waters, trying to squeeze out the best deal for their top riders.

Amid all this activity, many of the major GC riders have been firming up their relationships with their respective teams. Chris Froome, Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Urán are among several marquee riders extending over the past few weeks.

Lefevere insisted that his team’s future is secure, but added that the signatures are still not signed on the sponsor contracts for 2018 and beyond.

“Like I said 150 times or more this year, until the pen is on the paper, that’s when I will be happy,” he said.

“July and August are tough months. Somebody is always on holiday,” Lefevere continued. “Signing a contract is not peanuts. Lawyers are involved, big bosses are involved, so to get everyone together at the same table is not easy. We can hope to finalize it in the next week or no.”

Quick-Step has been busy, too. Marcel Kittel and Daniel Martin are gone. So are Matteo Trentin (Orica-Scott), Julien Vermote (Dimension Data), and David de la Cruz (Sky). Lefevere picked up Elia Viviani (Sky) and Florian Senechal (Cofidis), as well as a handful of young, promising riders. Tour of Flanders winner Philippe Gilbert and others are staying.

Lefevere said he had to make the hard choice between keeping German sprinter ace Kittel, and finding space for Fernando Gaviria, the most exciting rider to come along since Peter Sagan.

“It’s all about money. We have a fixed budget,” Lefevere explained. “This is the other side of a winning team. If a rider starts winning, he wants more money, but if the budget doesn’t increase, you have to make choices.

“I wanted to keep both. Kittel doesn’t want to ride on the same team as Gaviria,” he said. “He was at the end of contract, so I cannot stop him.”

Martin was the latest big name to announce, moving from Quick-Step to UAE-Emirates. Other significant moves include Kittel swapping Quick-Step for Katusha, with Alexander Kristoff sliding over from Katusha to UAE-Emirates. Warren Barguil is leaving Sunweb to join Fortuneo-Oscaro, while Mikel Landa is slotting from Sky to Movistar.

Louis Mentjies returns to Dimension Data, while Davide Formolo moves to Bora-Hansgrohe, and Ian Boswell joins Katusha. And the list goes on and on.

The lone new major team entering the market is Vital Concept, a new second-division French squad that has picked up mostly French riders, including Bryan Coquard, Kevin Reza, and Marc Fournier, among several others.

And the deals are not done yet.

Another factor is Bahrain-Merida and UAE-Emirates. Both teams came into the peloton relatively late last season, so each are bolstering their lineups for their sophomore seasons. UAE-Emirates has been especially active. The team signed Kristoff, Martin and experienced domestique Rory Sutherland, and there are rumors flying it will entice Fabio Aru to leave Astana.

For Lefevere, the team’s future is secure for at least another few more years. The 62-year-old Belgian has seen it all during his career that stretches back to his racing days in the 1970s.

Lefevere said it was ultimately his decision to keep the team going. After working with some of the biggest names in cycling, some speculated that Lefevere might have left the sport as well, following in the footsteps of his star pupil and classics champion Tom Boonen, who retired this year.

But Lefevere loves the racing, the lifestyle, and he’s not done yet. He sees Gaviria with the potential to become an international star.

“There was no risk of the team collapsing, because everybody was at end of contract, and the sponsors were at end of contract, so it was my decision,” he insisted. “Maybe someday I will say, ‘OK, you stupid asshole, stay at home with your ass on the couch, and watch TV.’ But that I cannot tell you for a few more years.”