The 2015 Tour de France is now in the history books, but for some in the peloton, the real race is just beginning.
Securing a job in the WorldTour is a bit like musical chairs. When the music stops, inevitably someone is left without a place at the table.
According to UCI rules, the trading season doesn’t officially begin until August 1, but most of the deals have already been quietly worked out, sometimes months in advance.
“Most of the contracts are closed during the two rest days at the Tour,” one agent told VeloNews. “Things get complicated for any rider without a contract after the Tour is over.”
According to many inside the peloton, 2015 has been a pretty quiet trading season. There are no new teams coming into the top echelons of the pro ranks, and no teams are trying to make the jump into the WorldTour.
Last year saw the blockbuster, three-year deal that brought Peter Sagan’s to Tinkoff-Saxo, as well as teams like IAM Cycling and MTN-Qhubeka bolstering their respective rosters. Sky signed a bevvy of riders, including Woet Poels, Nicolas Roche, and Leopold König, three riders who were key to Chris Froome’s recent Tour victory.
This year seems to be pretty quiet on most fronts. Despite having some big names at the end of their contracts, including Mark Cavendish and Michal Kwiatkowski (both Etixx-Quick-Step), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), and Richie Porte (Sky), most teams seems to be keeping a low profile, preferring to stick with their established stars rather than searching out expensive transfers.
“We might sign a few younger riders, but we are not too active on the market this year,” Katusha boss Viatcheslav Ekimov told VeloNews. “We are focusing on developing our younger Russian riders.”
That sentiment seems to echo across the peloton. Team owners are growing gun-shy about pulling the trigger on big-money contracts, and prefer to develop homegrown talent instead. A top-end GC rider or classics star is pulling in more than $2 million per season, and in some cases, double that.
Even the flamboyant Oleg Tinkov, who opened his checkbook last year to sign Sagan and Ivan Basso, said the team is not looking to sign A-list riders this season.
“I have to be wise not to do crazy things like I did with Peter Sagan one year ago,” Tinkov said. “Last year, I did a few signings that were above the market. I have to admit that I should not have paid that kind of money, and I will definitely not pay that kind of money again. So now the agents can relax, and not trick me again.”
One area where teams are active is trying to round out holes in the rosters. Last year, for example, BMC Racing brought on Damiano Caruso to race the Giro d’Italia as their team leader. He delivered on his end of the bargain, punching into the top-10 overall, giving the team valuable UCI points.
A team might have its committed GC rider for the Tour, but they also want someone who can ride well in the Giro or Vuelta a España, or the other one-week stage races across the season.
“We have Bauke [Mollema] for as our GC captain, and we’d like to find someone for the Giro,” said Trek Factory Racing manager Luca Guercilena. “It’s important to be competitive across the entire WorldTour calendar, not just the Tour.”
So far, many teams are keeping the proven talent they have: Katusha has re-upped with Joaquim Rodríguez, while Lotto-Soudal re-signed promising classics rider Tiesj Benoot and proven veteran Adam Hansen, each to two-year extensions. Orica-GreenEdge has no less than 19 of its 27 riders coming off contract. Most of the top names will stay, but it’s likely a few will be squeezed out.
Team Sky, with its largest budget in the peloton, appears to be an exception to the relative quiet: GC star Porte looks to be on his way out, but a world champion (Michal Kwiatkowski of Etixx-Quick-Step) and a Giro podium finisher (Mikel Landa of Astana) could be among the many impressive names on their way in, according to rumors.
Another factor this signing season is uncertainty about calendar changes and restructuring of team sizes, set to be introduced as soon as 2017. There have been lengthy discussions about paring down the international calendar, as well as shrinking rosters to as few as 25 riders per WorldTour team, but those negotiations recently hit a road block, forcing teams to try to cover the bases.
One idea to reduce the tension of the peloton is to reduce the number of riders per team from nine to eight, an idea to which BMC manager Jim Ochowicz is also opposed.
“You cannot ride a grand tour with less than nine riders,” said Ochowicz, who pointed out that teams used to start with 10. “Reduce the number of [race] days, and you can reduce the number of riders.”
Riders become accustomed to the game of musical chairs. Without a strong rider’s union, bike racers rely upon their personal contacts and a good agent to secure contracts. Most deals are for one or two seasons. Some things never change.
Musical chairs, who’s going where?
Here are some of the hot rumors ahead of the August 1 trading deadline:
Richie Porte, from Sky to BMC Racing
Michal Kwiatkowski, from Etixx-Quick-Step to Sky
Rigoberto Urán, from Etixx-Quick-Step to Team Colombia
Tom Jelte-Slagter, from Cannondale-Garmin to LottoNL-Jumbo
Mikel Landa, from Astana to Sky
Beñat Intxausti, from Movistar to Sky
Tejay van Garderen, from BMC Racing to Trek Factory Racing (reports denied for 2016)
Dan Martin, from Cannondale-Garmin to Etixx-Quick-Step
Mark Cavendish, from Etixx-Quick-Step to BMC Racing (likely to stay at Etixx)