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Analysis: At worlds, professional interests often override patriotism

Trade team loyalties are often at odds with national allegiances at worlds, when the jackpot for the rainbow jersey is worth millions

PONFERRADA, Spain (VN) — Don’t let the national team jerseys fool you in Sunday’s elite men’s road race.

The race for the rainbow jersey might be held under the banner of national federations, but the fight for glory is often a two-jersey race. One for the national teams, the other for trade teams.

If Fabian Cancellara wins Sunday, he will win it in a Swiss national jersey, but he’ll race the entire 2015 season with the stripes emblazoned across his Trek Factory Racing jersey.

To fully understand the dynamics of the elite men’s road race, you have to watch it through a lens that can pick up the professional interests that often conflict with patriotic allegiances. That inconsistency, coupled with the mystique of the rainbow jersey and the lure of cold hard cash, make the world championship race one of the most layered and intriguing events of the year.

“We have to ride smart, we have to use the other teams,” said Cancellara, who will be riding for a three-man Swiss team. “We know there are some politics, before and even in the race, that can change the race. We have seen that the last couple of years. There are a lot of things in the air.”

Rallying around the flag

That’s not to say that riders do not rally around their national flags. In fact, most pros say they enjoy riding for their respective national teams, something they do only during the worlds or the Olympic Games, for instance.

“I always enjoy racing the worlds. You get to hang out with your fellow countryman. It’s cool,” said American Tejay van Garderen. “These are the guys you grew up with racing since juniors, and now we’re all on different trade teams, so it’s nice to catch up. It’s a little easier to understand the accents. We can talk about football.”

Earning a spot for the worlds team remains prestigious, and riders take it very seriously. Coaches will often leave riders at home who they believe will blatantly ride for their professional teams or not toe the national team line. Filippo Pozzato and Samuel Sánchez, for example, were both high-profile riders left off their respective national squads because they did not fit into their team strategy.

At the worlds, riders are thrown together after racing all season against each other, something that does not always guarantee smooth sailing. Italians are infamous for intra-squad bickering.

“When you’re racing for the national team, you know it’s not going to be easy, to share the team with someone against whom you were beating up just four days ago,” said Spain’s Joaquim Rodríguez, who earns his paycheck with Katusha. “But let’s not forget that this [is not] only our problem, but on every team. That’s what makes the worlds so interesting.”

Making some cash

It’s important to remember that the pros make their living racing bikes, and the world championships offer a perfect opportunity to stuff their pockets with some extra cash.

During the worlds, the majority of riders do not receive money from their national federations. Some major European nationalities still pay appearance fees and bonuses, up to a $50,000 bonus for winning stripes for Belgium, but the U.S. team, for example, does not pay its riders to race.

As a result, riders will often put their trade team interests first. Discretion is the order of the day, but if you see some riders taking pulls at the front for no apparent reason, check to see what trade team they’re riding for.

That is especially true for riders on smaller teams. Cancellara and Peter Sagan (Slovakia) both start as five-star favorites, but they will be racing with only two national teammates each. Don’t be surprised to see to them receiving a helping hand at some point during the race from their respective pro teammates.

Riders will often lend a hand to high-profile colleagues, especially when they’re not sacrificing anything from their national team. Two years ago, Bernard Eisel raced the 2012 London Olympic Games for Austria, but he spent much of the race clearly in the service of Great Britain, which included former and soon-to-be pro teammate and pal Mark Cavendish.

Money also changes hands to ensure things go to script. Though insiders say it happens a lot less than it used to, teams will still pool together cash and quietly pay off a few key riders from other nations to do some early pacing. Eastern European teams, especially from nations without any real chance of winning the road race, were notorious for offering their services to the highest bidders. A few thousand extra euros for a few hours work seemed like a fair exchange for all parties.

A recent case that received a lot of media coverage involved ex-pro Charly Wegelius of Great Britain during the 2005 world championships in Madrid. Now a Garmin-Sharp sport director, Wegelius recounted the experience in his autobiography, “Domestique: The True Life Ups and Downs of a Tour Pro.” Wegelius, who was riding for the Italian Liquigas team at the time, was paid by the Italian national team to take some early pulls to control breakaways, and pocketed about $2,500 for his efforts. Unfortunately, the work was so obvious and blatant that Great Britain banned Wegelius for life from national team competition.

That same 2005 worlds in Madrid, won by Tom Boonen of Belgium in a bunch sprint, also saw another rider blatantly cross allegiances. Italian Guido Trenti was Boonen’s pro teammate on Quick Step, but gained a license to race the worlds with the U.S. team because his mother was American. It didn’t matter that Trenti couldn’t speak a word of English or that he had never set foot in the United States — he wore a USA  jersey that day.

Unfortunately for then-U.S. captain Fred Rodriguez, who did not make it into the first group, Trenti focused his leadout on helping set up Boonen for the win. One of the first riders a grateful Boonen hugged at the finish line was Trenti, who raced again in a USA  jersey at the 2007 worlds.

Blurring the lines

The lines often can be blurred between trade teams and national selections during the world championships. Orica-GreenEdge has strong links to the Australian cycling federation, with financial backing for both coming from millionaire Gerry Ryan, and both teams feature a similar mix of staffers and riders. Team GB and Team Sky are also linked at the hip. Australia has four Orica-GreenEdge riders on its nine-man lineup, while five Sky riders figure on Team GB’s nine-man squad.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Simon Gerrans, the Australian team captain and a leader at Orica-GreenEdge, said that familiarity can be a plus during the worlds. Communication and trust are key during the worlds, a race conducted without race radio.

“One big similarity between Orica-GreenEdge and the Australian national team is how well we commit and work together,” Gerrans said. “I never win a race without the complete help of my Orica-GreenEdge teammates. I expect the same camaraderie on Sunday as any race I’ve won with Orica-GreenEdge.”

The DNA of the professional teams is spread around the peloton throughout worlds week. Luca Guercilena, for example, works as manager of Trek Factory Racing, but he also serves as the Swiss national federation coach for the elite men’s road team. Most of the pro team buses were present in Ponferrada, serving as post-stage refuges for the national federations. Team Sky for Team GB, Orica-GreenEdge for Australia, and BMC Racing for USA Cycling. Many pro teams’ support staff, such as mechanics and soigneurs, also double up during the worlds for the national federations.

It’s easy to understand how allegiances to pro teams take priority. Movistar, for example, has seven riders racing Sunday, with five of the nine starters on the Spanish team, and others on Costa Rica (Andrey Amador) and Italy (Giovanni Visconti).

Last year, many accused Alejandro Valverde of purposefully not following then-Movistar teammate Rui Costa when the Portuguese rider chased down Valverde’s Spanish teammate Rodríguez to win the 2013 world title, a charge Valverde vehemently denied. Movistar boss Eusebio Unzue likes to count Costa’s victory as one for Movistar, even though he was soon gone to Lampre-Merida the next season. Perhaps it was no mistake that the first photos in the rainbow jersey last fall with Costa were in a Movistar jersey.

A rainbow worth millions

It’s hard to put a price tag on a world championship. Not only will riders receive bonuses from national federations, pro teams, and sponsors, they can also expect major pay hikes for future contracts. Rui Costa reportedly signed a deal with Lampre-Merida worth 1.5 million euros for this season. Philippe Gilbert reportedly signed for more than 3 million euros per season with BMC Racing after winning the world title in 2012.

While the system appears to encourage riders to buy the race, that appears to happen a lot less because the payoff in the modern peloton can be so valuable with victory. Allegations of buying races are nothing new, most recently involving ex-pro Alexander Vinokourov, who has alleged to have bought the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the 2012 Olympic gold medal.

Trade team alliances can affect national allegiances in other areas. In 1968, Eddy Merckx was told not to chase down then-Faema teammate Vittorio Adorni of Italy. In different circumstances, Greg LeMond in 1982 led the counter-attack to chase down then-U.S. national teammate (but not professional teammate) Jock Boyer, leading to accusations from Boyer that had LeMond not counter-attacked, he might have won. Instead, Giuseppe Saronni won, with LeMond earning America’s first-ever elite men’s worlds medal with silver.

Such indiscretions might seem out of line of the spirit of a bike race, at least for the purist, but for the top pros, it’s just part of the business of being a professional bike racer. Sunday’s race is sure to be packed with intrigue, and there will likely be more than a few examples of riders putting their pro team allegiances ahead of their national jerseys. Watch carefully. It might not be easy to spot, but if a rider is suddenly towing a national rival across to the front group, check which pro team they’ll be racing for next weekend. Or perhaps even next season.

Favors in the peloton are always paid back, especially if someone comes up a winner with the rainbow jersey.