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Should there be budget caps in pro cycling?

There's financial inequity in the peloton, but is imposing spending caps the right answer? We explore both sides of the argument.

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First, it was Ineos Grenadiers bringing the big bucks to pro cycling. Now Israel Start-Up Nation has joined the party and has hit the transfer market hard in a bid to send Chris Froome to the top in 2021. Behind them, the likes of UAE-Team Emirates and Ag2r-Citroën are making hay with sponsor riches.

Meanwhile, some squads such as Qhubeka Assos, Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert, and Cofidis make do with what they can.

Is it right that some teams have the financial muscle to buy the best while others simply don’t have the heft to match? Or is that simply the way it’s going to be in a sport driven by sponsor dollars rather than filling stadiums or billion-dollar TV deals?

There has long been discussion of introducing budget caps in pro cycling. European editors Andrew Hood and Jim Cotton consider either side of the argument:

Jim Cotton: Yes, there should be caps

Team Sunweb’s home-grown heroes lit up the Tour. Photo: Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Yes, I think there should be some sort of limit on budgets. Why? Not only because it will bring more exciting racing to the peloton, but because it encourages teams to get creative and carve out opportunities with what they’ve got.

Cast your minds back over the 2020 season. Which were two of the stand-out grand tour teams? Jumbo-Visma, who dominated the year with Primoz Roglič and Wout van Aert, and Team Sunweb, who lit up the Tour with their stage-hunting antics and then took second and third overall at the Giro. Do either of those teams have bounties of bucks? No.

Jumbo-Visma and Sunweb, though far from being the paupers of the WorldTour, built their successes around home-grown talent, identifying riders early and nurturing them within their own system rather than buying-in pre-made stars. Those two are proof that big money isn’t a be-all-and-end-all.

Putting a limit on budgets would force teams to shift their approaches to bike racing and encourage a forward-thinking outlook, rather than throwing cash at a situation and hoping it sticks. Why did the Tour stagnate during the heyday of “Fortress Froome?” Because the team had the money to buy the best riders, staffers, facilities, and technology, and no one else could match them.

Why was Tadej Pogačar’s ride to the yellow jersey so exciting? Because first, Jumbo-Visma brought the battle to Ineos, and then the young joker in the pack took them all by surprise. Having lots of teams in contention for races makes life better for us sitting on the sofa.

While I accept that cycling is a business and sponsors with the money will do all they can to boost their logos onto race-winners’ podiums, I think cycling could be a more exciting place if there was a leveling of the financial playing field.

Andrew Hood: No, because it won’t work

ISN chief Sylvan Adams has gone big in the transfer market this year. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Even though the idea of a salary cap might seem appealing at first glance, in reality, it would never result in the hoped-for outcome.

Why? First, it would be a challenge to enforce. Sure, the UCI could require teams to reveal salaries as part of the licensing process, but that would only set up a scenario to pay riders under the table, or direct payments through parallel revenue streams via performance bonuses or back-channel secondary sponsor payments.

Also, there’s the one-way, yet tenuous relationship with sponsorships under cycling’s current business model. It’s true that Ineos Grenadiers has the luck of having a deep-pocketed, generous sponsor right now, but there is no guarantee that it will last forever. Without secondary revenue streams, via shared TV rights, ticket sales, or alternative buckets of money that other sports can spread round, cycling remains dependent on the sponsor model.

And if a team can find a generous sponsor, what right do others have to tell them to limit their spending? Perhaps more than any other sport, cycling is a mercenary enterprise, and riders, whose careers might last a decade at the top, should have the freedom to sign with the highest bidder. After all, we are not communists.

And finally, splashing around money does not guarantee success. Just look at 2020. Ineos Grenadiers got shelled at the Tour de France, and though the team did win the Giro d’Italia and finish second at the Vuelta a España, the 2020 Tour revealed that a well-executed plan and superior performances by rivals can still deliver results.

Ideal? Far from it, but until there is a feasible alternative — be it creating permanent licenses, rider transfer fees, or shared TV rights — imposing arbitrary spending limits is not fair nor it is practical. Instead, cycling should put aside its sometimes petty turf wars, and work collectively to raise the tide for everyone.

Professional cycling doesn’t have enough money as it is. Trying to limit spending or imposing caps is contrary to what the sport needs. Sure, there is inequity in the peloton, no doubt about that, but the answer to that quandary is to find answers that will expand the pie for everyone, not limit the size of the slices.