The wrong side of thirty? Not as fast as you once were? Felt strong in some big races this year? But you’ve not been offered a new contract. It’s got to hurt, you were always in the service of the team, carrying bottles, punching a hole in the wind for someone else and often there when the team got a result. So what do you do?
This situation is one facing quite a few riders amongst the top-18 World Tour teams. Riders with their best days behind them might be able to offer a few more years of service but if they haven’t got many UCI points then they often replaceable. But there is a way to come back: go abroad for a year.
These days many riders are being hired from around the world because of their UCI points. Those who sit near the top of the rankings in Europe, Asia, America, Africa and Oceania can each offer something valuable to a pro team: their UCI points. As we’ve seen riders have been signed almost purely for their points haul but they’ve flopped in the big league. Ag2r in particular tried this, hiring riders from exotic locations last winter; they’re nice guys but not at the level needed and nor were they signed as young riders to develop over time.
All this suggests that if a rider in the top league today is strong and able to work in a grand tour but maybe struggling for a contract now they could think about a career move to the US, Australia or Asia. Now they won’t get rich by signing for a team in these countries but if they can put their experience and ability to use they stand to win valuable points. If you like they swap being small fish in a big pond to become big fish in a small pond. And after a year they could convert their points to cash in with a World Tour team desperate to stay in the top flight.
The riders need not move too far. Have you heard of André Schulze? He’s a 37 year old German rider currently with Team NetApp, that’s him in the picture above. He’s ridden for many modest pro teams over the years but now sits 11th in the UCI Europe Tour rankings with 332 points. This isn’t enough to keep a World Tour team in the top flight but signing him can go along way to keeping a team in the top tier. In other words he’s actually very valuable right now for teams like Lampre and Euskaltel.
The same is true for many other riders around the world who have managed to get plenty of points in America, Asia and Africa. It’s not easy and a pro who’s done World Tour races isn’t guaranteed to win. But as we’ve seen from riders like Sohrabi at Lotto-Belisol and Zagari at Ag2r, you can be dominant in Asia but struggle to finish races in Europe. By extension if the reverse happened and Euro rider went to an Iranian team perhaps he could rack up a lot of points to become very valuable after one year?
You might think and Iranian team doesn’t want Westerners. But in 2011 two Euro pros tried their luck with the Tabriz Chemicals team, Iran’s top squad and one of the best teams in the UCI Asia Tour. Iran doesn’t get a good press in the Western media but as far as cycling goes it is a surprising nation with some very good riders and a good amount of racing. Austria’s Marcus Eibegger was left out by Footon-Servetto as it became Geox and he went to Iran and duly won the Tour de Taiwan and was second in the Tour de Korea. His points haul was 127, not comparable to Sohrabi with over 300. So close, but not enough.
Not that it’s easy. It means going from a €50,000 salary to fraction of this and this is only the beginning. Gone is the team bus and the support of an army of mechanics and soigneurs. Mentally adjusting from doing your home grand tour to riding a race you’ve never heard of before could also be a challenge for some.
There’s a gap between the top tier and the other races. Many riders in the top league can find themselves without points and their teams don’t offer them a contract. Yet the very same teams who drop strong but ageing riders are hiring unheralded riders from around the world for their points, even in the knowledge that they won’t be so useful on the road.
It’s a perverse system and perhaps it needs to be revisited. But for now, so be it and perhaps a few riders can work the points system to their advantage? Those without a contract might contemplate a return to a local team or worse, unemployment at home. But there’s a chance that an international adventure could not only provide them with a living for a year but if it works out they could cash in just one year later. This isn’t for everyone but there are opportunities for experienced riders to exploit a system. What costs them their job this year could provide them with opportunities next year.