Moneywheel

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

In the a piece for cyclingnews.com I look at how teams on a small budget can aim to get in the UCI’s World Tour. Inspired in part by the book/film “Moneyball” that looks at baseball and prompted by Ag2r La Mondiale’s position as the only top team yet to win this year I wanted to see if there ways to build a winning team on a shoestring budget.

To summarise the book by Michael Lewis chronicles how The Oakland Athletics baseball team decide to deploy statistical analysis to recruit a winning team as opposed to hiring a collection of superstar players, looking for talent revealed by the statistics and not the scouts. Now baseball and cycling are very different sports and there are loads of statistics on player performance for baseball but few, if not nothing, on cycling. Yet both share a love of the past, with history, legends and myths playing a part and this got me wondering whether recruitment decisions in cycling are based on traditional instead of rationality.

I couldn’t find a way to form a winning cycling team but looking into the matter I did find ways to build a team on the cheap. Tax dodging, hiring foreign riders and aiming for the top-10 or top-20 on the overall classification of a stage race seems to be the cheapest way to join the bigger teams on the start line of the Tour de France. But these methods seems a way to build a boring team and one that might even annoy fans and authorities alike.

Shopping around for a country to register in is allowed under the rules, Farnese Vini flies under a British flag of convenience. Ag2r has gone shopping for riders with points won in Asia, hiring Iranian and Russian riders. Similarly the team aims to place riders like Nico Roche and J-C Péraud into the top-10 of the overall in a stage race in order to win points… even if this means cautious riding and even shunning stage wins.

In order to squash the word count for cyclingnews’s requirements I had to delete a few paragraphs from my original draft and remove a bit of nuance from the topic in the editing. Perhaps you can build a team on the cheap but it’s all relative, a top squad is still expensive and my ideas are more observations than recommendations points, a response to the incentives created by the UCI points system.

The full piece is over at http://www.cyclingnews.com/blogs/inner-ring/how-to-play-the-cycling-numbers-game

Larry T. March 27, 2012 at 7:19 pm

“You won’t win big but you’ll have a team in the top tier and the chance to dream of landing a big win” begs the question of WHY do this in the first place? Gianni Savio seems to do fine with his second-tier team and its “newspaper” jersey covered with tiny sponsor logos. To run a World Tour team and attend all the events they are obligated to attend takes a lot of euros. Too many euros in my opinion. Costs in the sport are spiraling out of control and while the UCI seems to understand this (in some ways) with their equipment regulations, they seem clueless about other factors. They need to deal with these issues BEFORE pro cycling ends up like F1 or MOTOGP with dwindling participation due to excessive costs or worse, a breakaway league and an outcome like the CART vs IRL fiasco that destroyed open-wheel auto racing in the USA.

Anon March 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Nice read. With these savings, what sort of budget is needed to get the team going?

The Inner Ring March 27, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Larry T: indeed, being in the World Tour has little point if you’re just going there to make up the numbers and let others win. Also see the French teams like Cofidis which seem to get a ride in the Tour every year and don’t even bother with the premium licence.

Anon: good question. Ag2r seem to work on about €8 million and Eusktaltel are on €7 million. You could shop around for a cheaper tax base so maybe €5 million if you really tried. Or spend €7-8m and use the money saving techniques to free more cash and hire better riders?

Cat4Fodder March 27, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Larry T: Why bother?

1) Exposure – you can sell to sponsors automatic invites into all three of the Grand Tours, and the biggest races. If guaranteed invites were not an issue, see Acqua-Sapone (no Giro invite this year, despite having DiLuca or Kenda/5 Hour Energy, which lost out on its main race, the Tour of California, which snubbed it.

2) These people are in it as a career….say what you want, but while I find AG2R annoying in their approach sometimes, the fact is, for many of the riders and employees, this is a business model which on some level, finanically…works. It means a job…a paycheck…say what you will. Maybe they know going into almost every race that they will not win, but honestly, what are their alternatives? Seems to me a fair trade-off and for many of the employees, any alternative is less than working for a World Tour team.

As for salaries and costs in general, if the UCI were legitimately concerned about costs, they would not be ADDING races in China and other far-flung locales at the expense of races more conveniently located to the Service Courses of each team in Europe, where there are actually fans.

The Inner Ring March 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm

The curious thing with Ag2r is that they probably don’t need the Pro Team status. Without paying all the money involved they could still ride the Tour which is what their sponsor – a savings and healthcare insurance business – wants so long as they hire enough French talent to justify a ride in July. Ag2r has almost no activity beyond France, not even in Belgium, so selling their services to China is pretty irrelevant… although Kuota bikes must enjoy this.

That said, to contradict myself, being able to ride the grand tours is important for some teams. Last year FDJ only rode the Tour and not being able to test younger riders in the Giro or Vuelta meant only 9 riders got experience of a three week tour last year, they wanted back into the World Tour for this very reason.

David N. Welton March 27, 2012 at 10:55 pm

My naive impression is that cycling and baseball are fairly different in the underlying economics that drive them too. Cycling is all about publicity and sponsorship, and has little to nothing to do with cultivating an identity linked to a place/city/people. A baseball team doing ‘pretty well’ statistically is going to be winning some games, since ‘placing’ isn’t really possible except in tournaments. In cycling, though, a rider who gets a few wins with style may well get way more publicity than someone who consistently places.

Steve March 28, 2012 at 12:39 am

David, sports economics would seem to tell us like Football, Baseball is about filling stadiums and selling shirts, hats and beer.

This discussion for me brings up another question.

Do I really want to see “bargain” teams ( Ag2r, Cofidis) ride grand tours promoting team tactics which in my opinion take away from the dynamics of teams working together and against each other for stage wins, KOM, Points, GC, etc ?
Secondly, could we avoid the early crashing out of GC stars by limiting the number of teams and thus increasing the quality of the average rider? ( NHL ice hockey is criticized for dilution of talent over to many teams) We seem to see so many talented GC riders crash out of Grand Tours in the first few days, and this is a shame as they would add so much to the drama we all love. I believe these crashes would occur less frequently if we had fewer teams with a higher concentration of quality riders.

Let the “bargain” teams race in lesser stage races and one days.

Cd March 28, 2012 at 12:47 am

Your piece ignores the talent side of the equation that is so prevalent in Moneyball. Operating on a cheap budget is one thing, but then getting undervalued talent on that budget that can compete with bigger teams is the key. I don’t think AGr or Euskatel do this. I think Garmin may be a better example of this approach with LT and Vo2 testing being the “stats” to get there. Vandevelde has to be a great example of this. Dekker may be the next one.

Cat4Fodder March 28, 2012 at 1:58 am

@Steve: I actually prefer to see the smaller teams gain entrance. Remember Barloworld from 2007? It also often times can highlight up and coming talent, and adds some variety. At the very least, at least Euskatel is exciting on the climbs, regardless of whether they often fall short. Sanchez will attack for stage wins, and this can be exciting.

Most smaller teams seem to get this, and go for exposure, sometimes brazen attacks, that add some spice to the race. My issue with AG2R as a team seems to be that they are the opposite. They are a small team willing to settle for top-10 finishes (and let’s face it, nothing is more exciting than watching a guy come in 9th, 30 seconds from the podium finishers). Rarely shaking it up, rarely trying to be noticed. If I had to equate them to a rider, they are the Levi Lepheimer of cycling teams, while Euskatel is the Carlos Sastre of cycling teams.

Steve March 28, 2012 at 2:33 am

@Cat4fodder: I agree, as well I like to see the lesser teams and the younger riders make impressions ( take risks get their kit on the TV and ultimately land them on larger teams making more money.

The point which frustrates me is that too many talented GC riders who’s whole season is to ride GT events are crashed out on the 3rd day of TDF because of a peloton with too many guys in it.

How many domestics finish the TDF? I would trade 5 quitters for one Levi to finish the TDF
He can TT.

Cat4Fodder March 28, 2012 at 5:54 am

@Steve:
Crashing out is a risk that cannot, nor should not be eliminated. Maybe it is my own experience dealing with races at lower Categories of racing, but my mindset is that crashes are a risk reward issue. Risk crashing for being able to hide in the pack….or make your team (like BMC last year), push it at the front. The risk is the team leader or team burns too many matches earlier in the Grand Tour or race.

Contador should have been in a better position last year…he was not…and crashed in the early phase of the race. That is racing…it is an aspect of the sport that gets missed all too often.

Ian March 28, 2012 at 8:46 am

mmm ok Inrng’s 10,000 twitter followers chip in £500 each and we have £5m and our own team. Who’s in ?

Ian March 28, 2012 at 8:57 am

On a second point I’ve still not really got my head round how all the points and rankings work. If you are a team like say Endura and had aspirations to get a seat at the top table how do you do it?

Also when Sky popped up and went straight into the top league did they do this by simply employing riders with points from the previous season ?

Larry T. March 28, 2012 at 11:35 am

The NUMBER of World Tour teams is another issue. I’ve written this before (as have a few others) but still think a dozen, well-funded, competitive teams are enough in the “big league”, leaving the race organizers the option to add as many as 6 teams from the lower division (the Giro could have added Acqua & Sapone though I think they were ignored because they took on DiLuca, but that’s just my opinion) if they wanted. 162 riders is enough, there’s no need for 200+ guys all trying to squeeze onto the road. This makes the issue of getting into the big league “on the cheap” a non-issue as those operations (like Gianni Savio’s) would get in on the wild-card basis quite often.

Gingerflash March 28, 2012 at 2:12 pm

I suspect hiring a load of convicted dopers would save a fair bit on the wages too!

Beth Leasure-Hudson March 28, 2012 at 4:39 pm

The key point in Moneyball, the book, was not how to win on the cheap. The key point was how this team won on the cheap and that was by focusing on the stats of winning through motivational incentives on the right player skills; changing the technology, team structure, and team motivation in the process. The team changed what to track in terms of winning skills, and these changes were radical at the time and very sophisticated in terms of data processing.

This idea coincides with research on successful Olympians that shows process-orientation versus results or what’s called ego-orientation (arguably pleasing sponsors would fall into this type of orientation in a cycling context.) While the reality is that ball teams need to win to sell tickets at the gate and Olympians need to win to qualify for the team and cycling teams need to win to garner sponsorship deals, teams and athletes that focus on the skills of the athletic endeavor tend to win more and this is why big money teams often do better because they can afford the skilled riders, skilled coaches and directors etc. But a little team with more skills focus and less pressure or pressure properly applied can sometimes win the day and does so, and this is how the drama unfolds for participant and observer alike in cycling, thank God!

The Inner Ring March 29, 2012 at 8:32 am

Beth Leasure-Hudson: good point and I agree; for the sake of brevity I couldn’t explain the book in greater detail.

Last night Garmin-Barracuda boss Jonathan Vaughters put on twitter that his budget is similar to Ag2r, which means around €8 million. We should note the difference in results and we can see the difference in process.

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