Visit a stockmarket and you’ll soon learn the value of a company tends to be based on expectations of its future performance. The on-screen prices flash and change as tiny pieces of information, as well as big news, have their effect on the valuation of a stock.
A stockmarket isn’t the only place where assets are traded. In the world of pro cycling a team owner will regard riders as assets. Some teams do this openly, for others managers it’s more of a subconscious calculation.
Either way, teams need to put a value on a rider in order to decide whether to hire him. There are various factors at play. Obviously a star rider has a high price but this is based on expectations about his ability to win future races more than his stock of past wins. In addition, can the rider contribute to the team, whether in riding or via other means, from leadership to a sense of humour? Will the rider bring additional sponsors? Will the the rider keep away from scandal?
Past performance is a guide to the future
So far all these questions involve the future tense, they are about what the rider might offer once they’ve been signed. It’s like stockmarket assessing the outlook for, say, Nestlé or General Motors. It’s not so much what has happened in the past but how things will turn out in the future, what will happen to sales and profits. But there’s a new factor at play in cycling that is not about the future but the past: ranking points.
These ranking points belong to the rider but they are crucial for a team because the squad’s licence for the top tier depends on a ranking position. If a team wants to ride the Tour de France and other big races, above all if a sponsor has to be present in these races, then a “ProTeam” licence is essential. In order for a team to qualify here it needs, amongst other things, a stock of points accumulated by its riders. The notable thing is that when the points are tallied, they include new signings for the upcoming year. This then brings about the following question:
What happens if a rider who has a lot of points hurts himself badly in September and will be out of racing for a longer time throughout the next season? Does his team still get a licence?
So asks Cofidis manager Eric Boyer in an interview with Hedwig Kröner of cyclingnews.com. You can go further with a reductio ad absurdum argument. What happens if a rider with a big haul of points never rides again? A rider could sign for a team simply to lend points when they actually meant to retire. As we’ve seen with Vacansoleil, this isn’t a pointless question, the Dutch squad got its three year licence largely thanks to banking the points of Riccardo Riccò… only for the Italian to get sacked after a couple of races. Riccò’s gone but Vacansoleil have a licence for three years. The house of cards has to stand straight just long enough for a licence to be awarded.
No contracts for young men?
This marks a big change in the way teams approach riders. Far from a rider’s future prospects, in many cases it means the rider’s value to the team is their stock of points. It marks a shift where older riders with points become relatively more valuable that hot prospects without points.
Protecting your assets?
Another twist to this is the way a team might change the way it looks at its riders. Knowing the squad could need points later in the year when the UCI does the calculations, any rider leaving the team ends earning points for a potential rival squad. Everything else being equal the team will favour riders who will bring precious points to the team. As an example imagine a squad with two near-identical sprinters but one is linked to the team for 2012 and the other sees their contract up and there’s talk of them moving to a new team. The current team is likely to leave the departing rider at home for big races, and to invest more time and training in the rider who is part of the team’s future.
It’s here that we might already be seeing some examples. Allan Davis didn’t get much help from his Kazakh team mates in the recent Tour of Turkey. He wasn’t the only Aussie to find team mates not offering their full support in the same race. It’s hard to pin this on the UCI points system alone. But the incentives are certainly there, a team manager hunting for sponsors will want a spot in the top tier and is thus incentivised to protect their “assets” rather than reward riders heading for rival teams.
This isn’t a surprise. In a good interview with Cycle Sport Magazine, Team Sky’s Dave Brailsford sets out how he evaluates a rider. You can even see a chart that correlates a rider’s performance with age and by extension the higher the y-axis score, the higher I’d predict the salary.
Who are you racing for?
It brings about the question of loyalty. Is a rider racing for themselves, their team or a prospective employer? Many riders would just respond “look I just want to win races” or “I’ve got a job to do, helping my guys” with the hope that their work gets reward properly.
But when there’s money at stake people tend to change their ways. Incentives encourage alternative behaviour, in this case for riders to think of their points tally and bank account as well as teams to favour riders who will land them points as opposed to gifting them to a new squad. Plus we’ve seen Jérôme Pineau complaining riders play things cautiously in order to bank points.
Teams now have a dilemma, whether to race some of their best riders knowing they might well win races during the season… but that some of the benefits from the win will flow to another team. Indeed some teams lower in the rankings and facing a licence renewal could see their position jeopardised. Also imagine a team that has already signed a new rider for 2012. Would they chase them down in a race this summer because to do this would be to damage the rider’s precious points tally?
There’s a fixed number of ProTeam licences available and more teams want a top in the top tier than place exist. Given this, ranking points are a crucial part of obtaining a licence. Therefore points become valuable for riders, teams, managers and sponsors alike. A rider’s future prospects still count for plenty but their past becomes increasingly valuable too. It’s no longer “what can you do” but also a question of what have you done. Taken to the extreme, a team could sign a rider with substantial injuries just to secure the services of his points.
It all raises plenty of questions but the answers are difficult. Thankfully following a race won’t require spreadsheet calculations and contractual expertise. But there seem to be examples where this issue already affecting the outcomes of races and tactics. Don’t be surprised to see more of this.