One rider agent has denounced the “dictature of UCI points” when it comes to teams hiring riders. I’ve long suggested these ranking points are important, to the point of twisting incentives within the sport. But teams will recruit for other factors too. Obviously they want to hire riders capable of winning, or if not then good helpers. There are several other factors at play here. But one is nationality. Let’s take a look.
First, this manifests itself in the most obvious way, in that a team will recruit locally. Take French squad Cofidis, it is based in Northern France and so it’s full of Frenchmen… but it also has several riders from just over the border in Belgium.
Second there’s a practical element. With a team that’s already full of one nationality a foreigner might stand out, there is at least a language barrier to overcome. Don’t forget that whilst a race might be six hours, team morale can depend on the other 18 hours of the day. Who rooms with who, the mood on the team bus or the breakfast table. Riders need to share jokes. A mix of nationalities can work, it just takes an effort; similarly a room full of riders from the same country is no guarantee of good morale, far from it.
Above all there’s the target market of the sponsor. Quick Step has recently announced the recruitment of two Poles, Michał Kwiatkowski and Michał Gołaś. It’s no co-incidence that the Polish economy is growing faster than most European countries and that a company selling flooring products is keen to get a slice of the construction market. Similarly French consumer credit business Cofidis is expanding into Spain and keen to ride the Vuelta, it has Spanish riders. You can go through almost every team and spot this, for example the way Garmin-Cervélo has riders from around the world to help sell their devices and bike frames to cycling fans; the way Cannondale wants US and Aussie riders with Liquigas or Sky’s recruitment of German and Italian riders.
Which leads me to an interesting question: does a rider’s pay vary according to their nationality? Because if some riders are big names in big countries, is this not more valuable. For example John Degenkolb and Tony Martin are from Germany, home to over 80 million people and Europe’s largest economy. Everything else being equal, are these two riders not more valuable because they can tap into this giant consumer market than if they were, say, Austrian or Danish?
Finally nationality can have other consequences. I’ve mentioned the economy as a backdrop above, in terms of team sponsors targeting consumer markets. But there are other national effects. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate them but different countries have different wage levels and some teams have recourse to riders from Eastern Europe where wages are lower. They can find riders willing to settle for the UCI’s minimum wage when others might not.
Teams pick riders for their abilities and a win is a win, it gets great publicity. But fitting in with the squad matters. In addition many sponsors are keen to target particular markets and hiring riders of certain nationalities is a way to achieve this. Nationality can matter.