Philippe Gilbert used to ride for FDJ but these days there’s little chance he could go back. The French squad simply doesn’t have the budget to hire him. In an interesting piece on Eurosport.fr, Cofidis manager Eric Boyer says “We don’t have the means the to pay a rider one million a year. It’s an eighth of our budget” whilst Europcar’s manager Jean-René Bernaudeau says that hiring a staff would cost a fortune, “Gilbert, he’d cost our entire team budget“.
France is a nation of 60 million people, Europe’s second largest economy and home to the Tour de France and an extensive calendar of other races. How come the domestic teams have such modest budgets? What is their place in the sport?
Tax is a major factor. I’ve covered the topic before but it comes up again and again. To summarise, when an employer in France hires someone they pay taxes on their wages, adding to the cost of employing them. These taxes, known as “social charges” are a hot political topic but that debate belongs elsewhere. Let’s treat them as the fact they are.
Imagine a top rider with an agent who says “he will sign for a net salary of €1.8 million Euros”. Here’s what it would cost to hire this rider in several countries.
|Player income taxes||1.8||1.2||1.5||1.6|
|Player social charges||0.35||>0.1||>0.1||>0.1|
|Employer social charges||1.4||0.4||>0.1||>0.1|
|Total cost to team||5.4||3.3||3.4||3.5|
|Multiple of net salary||2.98x||1.86x||1.87x||1.91x|
|Source: French senate|
Let’s walk through the table. We start with a rider and his agent saying “pay me €1.8 million a year“, a salary you might expect for, say, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara or Denis Menchov. In lines 2 and 3, the rider or player has income and payroll taxes to settle themselves but already these are significantly greater in France, the gross salary for an athlete in France needs to receive is €4 million compared to €3-3.4 million for neighbouring countries.
But then come the payroll taxes, the social security charges. In France these are massively higher, see line 5. On the gross salary of €4m, another €1.4m in charges are added, meaning a French team needs to budget €5.4m just to ensure a rider gets his €1.8m, whereas a British-registered team only needs to spend €3.3m to give the same rider the same standard of living.
All in all it means a French cycling team needs a wage budget almost 50% bigger than a British team just to employ the same riders. As you can imagine, this is a real handicap. Put simply, French sports teams can’t compete on the same terms as rivals from other countries.
It’s not an abstract matter of data, tables and tax rates. The Eurosport piece points out that French squads have tried to hire Thor Hushovd, Janez Brajkovic, Denis Menchov, Tejay van Garderen, Andreas Klöden, Filippo Pozzato, Sylvain Chavanel and John Degenkolb, amongst others. But the riders were unaffordable.
Is this down to tax alone? Probably not but this is a reason why the French soccer league does not attract the best players and it is also a major factor in cycling. In addition, other countries allow teams to recruit riders on a “self-employed” basis whereby they contract out their labour to a pro team but legally they are not employed by the pro team. This outsourced status also saves a team money…and is also unavailable in France.
But if French teams have no big names, it is also because they don’t have the budget to start with. If they cannot rival Sky or BMC for wage expenditure and their all-star rosters, they could aim to recruit at least one or two big leaders and put a squad at their service.
Today we are condemned to develop riders. The wealthy pay [for talent], we develop it
-Eric Boyer, Cofidis
If a big name is out of reach this suggests French teams face a different role. When a rider on a French team becomes world class they will most probably leave for another team. This is already the case for French soccer where the “Ligue 1” frequently sees its best players bought by clubs in England, Italy and Spain although note the word “bought”. Soccer players can be transferred for millions, creating a new revenue stream for clubs that find new talent and develop it. In cycling French teams can find new talent but they cannot recover any costs via a transfer fee by selling, say, Gilbert to Lotto or Chavanel to Quick Step.
But I find a certain fatality in the comments of French team managers. They complain French citizens cannot move to Monaco to dodge taxes, which is true and gives Belgian or Italian riders even more income. But if a Frenchman wanted to maximise their take-home pay they could move to a low tax country like Switzerland. And several Italian teams are registered in Britain and Ireland. Indeed Continental team VC La Pomme, effectively a club from Marseilles, was registered in Latvia for 2010.
Above all, I’m not seeing the rider development at the French teams. There’s something to be admired in Thomas Voeckler training without a powermeter and not even using a heart rate monitor but that is because it embraces an old-school romanticism. But it’s not the example to follow for teams wanting to get the best out of young riders. Take the example of Richie Porte, a neo-pro in his first few races with Saxo Bank and he didn’t stand out at first glance. But the team could spot his ability thanks his powermeter because Porte was putting out big numbers but just finding it hard to navigate his way in the dense bunch. This isn’t to say French teams don’t embrace sports science, they do. Cofidis employs a full-time coach and FDJ has well-structured training plans for younger riders. But there is still a legacy of old methods. And if teams want to bring on new riders when I look at the French squads they have not recruited many ne0-pros. FDJ has two whilst Agr2 La Mondiale, Cofidis and Saur-Sojasun have taken on one neo-pro each.
Similarly if smaller squads want to sign promising talent they need to look far and wide but the French teams tend to recruit local riders. Ag2r has recruited foreigners but this is for the points and not the talent, for what a rider has done in the past season rather than what he could do in the years to come.
All countries are waking up to change. The Italians used to dominate the sport, plenty has changed since that time and no Italian won a classic this year or last. If France has challenges, so do many other countries. Forget tax, the maths has changed with the arrival of so many new riders from around the world. France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Spain and Switzerland can no longer count on winning.
French teams can do more than bring on young riders. As a major country with large consumer brands and multinationals combined with a big calendar of excellent domestic races, you’d think France would be a heartland for cycling. But alas, FDJ has just rejoined the Pro Tour and Ag2r just qualified to stay in the top league.
Tax is a big issue for the French squads, a national issue that affects their ability to compete at home and abroad. But this is not insurmountable. We’ve seen some Italian teams registering abroad. If riders want millions, they can move to a low tax country. Obviously teams and riders chose not to move and perhaps we should salute this patriotic loyalty. But if a French squad does want to compete against others, maybe they need to adopt the same measures? As long as the rules allow it.
Finally, plenty can change. If Pierre Rolland or another Frenchman can come close to winning the Tour de France then sponsors, tax or not, will be queuing up