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The Outer Line: Mathieu van der Poel’s murky future in road cycling

Sponsorships and shifting team ownership could impact Mathieu van der Poel's immediate future in professional road cycling.

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It’s no secret why Mathieu van der Poel is the favorite to win the upcoming 2019 UCI road world championships in Yorkshire, England. In the last calendar year he has claimed the cyclocross world title, Amstel Gold Race, three rounds of the UCI mountain bike World Cup, and several other high-profile road races.

Considering his huge natural talent and strength, van der Poel’s skills across multiple disciplines and the flashes of brilliance, which he already demonstrated during his limited appearances on the road, this makes complete sense.

Yet van der Poel has no immediate plans to race the Tour de France, road cycling’s premier event. He has repeatedly stated his intentions to target the Olympic mountain bike race at the 2020 games in Tokyo, a goal that will undoubtedly keep him from pro cycling’s premiere race next season.

This implies that he is postponing his Tour debut until at least the summer of 2021, when he will be 26 years old – late for a superstar to be making their inaugural grand tour appearance.

For reference, Peter Sagan made his grand tour debut at the Vuelta a España, at the age of 21 (winning three stages), and rode his first Tour de France at 22. Egan Bernal just won the Tour de France at age 22, and Slovenian wunderkind Tadej Pogacar is currently mixing it up with the World’s top riders, already taking two Vuelta stage victories at age 20.

Furthermore, unless there is some kind of transfer in the meantime, even a 2021 Tour appearance is dependent on his Pro Conti team, Corendon-Circus, obtaining a wildcard spot, or advancing into the WorldTour ranks.

This delay to his debut at the sport’s biggest race sets up a strange if tantalizing scenario, wherein road cycling fans get a brief glimpse of van der Poel’s absolutely mind-bending performances, and then have to watch as he walks away from the sport for months on end. The astonishing manner in which van der Poel pulled back world-class riders Julian Alaphilippe and Jakob Fuglsang in the final kilometers of this year’s Amstel Gold race, only to toast the rest of the field – which had been chasing in his slipstream – was one of the most impressive performances in recent cycling history. And many observers think that was just a teaser of what’s in store.

Mathieu van der Poel’s strengths in mountain bike racing make him a favorite to win the 2020 Olympics. Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

When van der Poel then took a four-month break to race mountain bikes for the summer, attentive viewers could logically have been left asking themselves, “Wait, what happened to that really good guy?” as they watch other riders, now considered potentially inferior, battle it out for the biggest prizes in the sport.

Clearly van der Poel should be applauded for his willingness to set traditions aside, go his own way, and race a schedule that makes him happy. Also, winning an Olympic title would significantly raise his public profile in The Netherlands, a country that reveres Olympic champions.

Hopefully, he will be able to avoid the burnout that has often hit multi-discipline riders. In recent years, phenom women’s racer Marianne Vos has been able to maintain her form and focus while racing several different disciplines – but she is also widely viewed as a one-of-a-kind in racing history, and she has been forced to temper her schedule after taking 2015 off due to fatigue and injuries.

Van der Poel recently won the fourth stage of the Tour of Britain. Photo: Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Either way, van der Poel’s simultaneous pursuit of three different disciplines sets up something of an awkward dynamic for road cycling. When viewers tune in to watch the Tour de France, there is the implicit assumption or understanding that they are watching the premier riders in the world duke it out for victory on the sport’s biggest stage. If possibly the most talented rider in the world chooses to sit the race out, it will eventually be a bit embarrassing for the race – and for the sport’s ability to market its premier event.

This isn’t van der Poel’s fault, and it’s not even remotely his problem – he is simply racing the events he enjoys the most, and where he feels most engaged as a competitor. He’s been fortunate to have a Pro Conti team (Corendon-Circus) which realizes they have a once-in-a-generation star, and has been willing to let him have the flexibility to engage in all of his different pursuits.

Likewise, Canyon Bicycles has been fortunate to have the budding superstar sitting on their bikes in all three disciplines. However, this whole situation could become more complicated, due to some recent events beyond the control of either van der Poel or Canyon.

Swedish private equity investor Triton Partners, the owner of Sunweb (a travel company, and current sponsor of the men’s and women’s WorldTour team) recently acquired Corendon, also a travel operator, and the name sponsor of van der Poel’s Corendon-Circus Pro Conti team. Triton plans to merge the two companies together, and will then find itself by default in the position of essentially sponsoring two major cycling teams.

Van der Poel’s Corendon-Circuis team has an unsure future in 2020. Photo: Mark Van Hecke/Getty Images

The Corendon CEO, Steven van der Heijden, has already gone on the record, saying that the costs of running two professional cycling teams “is of course a bit much” for one parent company.

There is also UCI rule 2.2.001 which states, “Riders belonging to a team registered with the UCI with the same paying agent or main partner may not compete in the same race.” Presumably this pertains to the owner of the team license, rather than the primary sponsor of the team. For reference, Patrick Lefevere had to abide by these rules in 2004 when he was owner of both QuickStep-Davitamon and his short-lived Bodysol-Brustor side project.

So, what happens if Triton lacks the appetite to indirectly sponsor two teams? There are several scenarios that could play out. Corendon and Sunweb could combine, or the parent company could simply shutter one team and keep the other. The scenario is admittedly unresolved. Yet both of these scenarios could have an impact on van der Poel’s future.

Either scenario could place bike sponsor Canyon in a tough position. The direct-to-consumer bike brand has been getting significant positive exposure with van der Poel across three cycling disciplines, and it would certainly be keen to continue its relationship with him. One of the company’s two WorldTour teams, Katusha-Alpecin, is rumored to be shuttering at the end of the season, despite claims from management that the squad will continue.

Van der Poel’s future could come down to what happens with his Corendon-Circus team. Photo: Vincent Kalut-Pool/Getty Images

The visibility and value for Canyon that van der Poel delivers through Correndon is perhaps worth more to the bike brand than its team-wide deal with Katusha.

If the Triton companies did decide to consolidate and focus its cycling-related activities and sponsorship funds on just one team, conventional wisdom says it would likely be Sunweb – currently a major and successful top-level WorldTour team. Canyon likely could not push for a “merger” of sorts between Sunweb and Corendon-Circus, since the bike brand does not own the teams.

Combining the squads would likely mean that Sunweb, the WorldTour squad, would continue, with handpicked top riders from Correndon. In theory, this situation would be less-than ideal for both van der Poel and Canyon, as Sunweb management would likely want van der Poel to focus more on the road. And Canyon would either lose its deal with van der Poel or have to step in and somehow take over sponsorship the new Sunweb team from current bike sponsor Cervelo.

Within pro cycling’s rumor mill are plenty of, admittedly, unconfirmed theories surrounding the situation. Perhaps Correndon would strike an agreement with Katusha; Canyon could transfer van der Poel to its other WorldTour team, Movistar; or Correndon could try to make the leap to the WorldTour on its own.

What do we think will happen? At first glance, van der Poel’s intuitive style of riding doesn’t seem like a very good fit for Sunweb’s controlled and scientific approach; merging into the declining Katusha program seems less attractive than the Sunweb alternative; and the Movistar transfer seems like a particularly poor idea, given the team’s lack of focus on the key Classics events where van der Poel has excelled.

And, if the Correndon team was to try to jump to the WorldTour on its own, the team would need both a major new sponsor and considerably more UCI points. That fact, in turn, would require van der Poel to race more on the road next season, something he has already declined. So, at least at the moment, Correndon’s WorldTour jump seems like a stretch.

The other consideration for any future sponsor is that if and when van der Poel switches to more of a full-time road schedule, it will likely have significant financial implications. According to one rider agent, if he switched full-time to the road, van der Poel could probably command a salary of about $5 million a year – at least five times what he is rumored to currently be making. Retaining van der Poel’s services on a full-time road contract would seriously balloon sponsorship costs to whatever team and bike manufacturer was lucky enough to land him.

The Correndon team would undoubtedly love to somehow team up with Canyon and find a major new sponsor, hang on to van der Poel over the long-term, and figure out a way to move the team up to the WorldTour. But, as many cycling managers have learned, even highly successful teams have sometimes had trouble finding major sponsors. So, Correndon may eventually have to consider some of the alternatives mentioned above

The future alternatives here are dizzying – and they combine to leave the immediate future of the most exciting young prospect in road cycling, at least three different teams, and a couple of major bike brands all up in the air as we head toward the off-season. Van der Poel is under no pressure to make a decision, and he will likely experience great success at whatever discipline or events he chooses. However, he may eventually have to coordinate his future plans with the financial realities of some team.

Another possible scenario to consider. What if the Correndon team can’t find a new sponsor or acquire the riders to earn enough points to move up to the WorldTour? And what if van der Poel’s racing style or preferences aren’t a good fit with Sunweb? It’s conceivable that one of the most talented riders in the sport could find himself with surprisingly few good racing options.

Whatever the eventual outcome, van der Poel’s eventual choices will have significant and wide-ranging implications for multiple stakeholders and teams. And even ASO, organizer of the Tour de France, may have no say in the matter – as van der Poel defers racing in its flagship event to pursue other objectives. As road cycling continues to struggle with engaging new fans and attracting more viewers and engage, the major stakeholders in the sport will all be holding their breath – hoping the future’s brightest star will finally show up to the party.