UCI To Close “Dangerous” Petacchi Transfer Loophole

Sprinters and lawyers have more in common than you think. They’re often well-paid and they spend their time trying to squeeze through gaps and loopholes.

In recent days we’ve had news that the Omega Pharma – Quickstep team had been looking to hire Alessandro Petacchi. The Italian would make a useful addition to the team as a leadout man for Mark Cavendish. He is fast and experienced and if he’s not the victor he once was, there’s a career for a year or two spent in the service of Cavendish.

But cycling doesn’t normally allow mid-season transfers and if some reports said OPQS mechanics had even built a Specialized for Petacchi, he’s not moved yet. Indeed it looks like a potential loophole has been closed by the UCI, fearing the precedent could set by a mid-season transfer. But what if we allowed teams to trade riders during the season and created a transfer market?

The UCI has a set transfer period. Rule 2.15.120a says “The transfer period for any change of team during the season extends from 1-15 August” which means if a pro team wants to recruit any rider mid-year it has to wait until 1 August before the move happens.

But Rule 2.15.121a say “Only a rider with no contractual links to a team may be recruited outside the applicable transfer period” which means a team can recruit an out-of-contract rider at any point during the year. For example last year New Zealand’s Sam Bewley was picked up by Orica-Greenedge in May last year to fill the spot left by Robbie McEwen’s retirement.

The loophole in the UCI rules is that a team, let’s call them Sigma Farmer-Quakerstop, could quietly approach a rider currently under contract with an existing team and whisper details of a new contract to them. Our rider then informs his existing team that he’s giving up the sport. Maybe he’s injured, maybe he’s just bored but he stops. Then being out of contract our rider gets an official contract offer from the Sigma Farmer-Quakerstop team who tell the media he could be a good addition. The team checks with the UCI and everyone agrees he’s out of work. Therefore he can be signed, unemployment is reduced by one, and in no time at all our rider is wearing the Sigma Farmer-Quakerstop jersey.

The trouble with this loophole is that the rider can only be hired if he’s out of work and a recruiting team therefore has to engineer the situation and approach the rider by stealth so they can end their contract. This practice is called “tapping up” or “tampering” and it can be highly destabilising. By using these stealthy means a rider can effectively break their existing contract to move to another team. It’s why cycling has a fixed transfer period, otherwise big teams could raid small teams.

Indeed speaking to La Gazzetta Dello Sport yesterday, legendary Italian rider and UCI official Vittorio Adorni said Petacchi’s early season switch “would set a dangerous precedent”.

Transfer Market
But instead of seeing teams trying sneaky moves or simply being frustrated by the inability to adjust the team roster in the season, what if we allowed transfers during the year? Many other sports do this and of course it’s normal in any line of work, I suspect you’re free to change your job when you see fit although subject to some rules, laws and customs.

In support of the idea is that everyone can gain. A rider can move to a new team where they might be happier, one squad can fill a gap caused by injury or even suspension and the squad can unload a rider because it feels the rider is not needed. In simple terms a deal is done where everyone gains.

Against the idea is the destabilising effect of big teams being able to buy the best riders during the year. A small team could sign a neo-pro on a two year contract only to see them bought away after six months. It’s also short-termist, at the margin it turns recruitment into a quick-fix policy where teams can buy in talent for the Tour de France or Giro rather than developing riders over time.

But the transfer market could take a variety of forms. In the simplest terms a rider moves teams but keeps their existing contract. The identical terms and conditions, especially salary, are carried over as well. But it’s possible to explore much more complicated versions, for example to imagine compensation and transfer fees. We’ve seen this already in cycling because when Team Sky were created they bought Bradley Wiggins out of his contract with Slipstream and they also did the same with Ben Swift to get him out of Katusha. In these cases Slipsteam and Katusha management got a considerable cash fee as an inducement to let their riders go.

The UCI appear to have shut the door on Petacchi’s instant switch to OPQS. It’s likely the rulebook gets tweaked to make things clearer too. The Italian still looks set to join the team but just not in a hurry. The rules say 1 August so hiring the Italian in time for the Tour de France looks difficult.

Currently the system is firm, partly to stop big teams flush with cash raiding small teams. But longer term what if pro cycling allowed team transfers? This is an open-ended question because it could just go from creating a formal framework for exceptional cases all the way to a full transfer market.

46 thoughts on “UCI To Close “Dangerous” Petacchi Transfer Loophole”

  1. But how can UCI stop the transfer, if the Rule 2.15.121a say “Only a rider with no contractual links to a team may be recruited outside the applicable transfer period”

    Petacchi is now a rider with no contractual links to a team.

      • But the rule doesn’t say anything about that? If they want to stop the loophole, they must change their rules? Surely they can’t just say: “Yeah, we know it’s actually ok according to our rules, but we don’t care, we won’t let it happen.” ? Well, it is the UCI, of course…

          • They could also take a purposive approach and say that a “contractual link” includes an agreement to ride for a particular team in a particular season, even if the contract itself expires during the season. This may not hold water in CAS (although the case may last long enough to tweak the rules), but it might do if, say, the former team has carried out some actions for the rider which benefit him for the whole of the season (e.g., registration of some kind, contribution towards bio-passport, etc).

          • They could. But then they should go public with that, right? As I understand even Petacchi and OPQS haven’t received any information from UCI? If the UCI doesn’t explain their ruling, it will look like they are (once again) breaking their own rules.

      • I believe this is one of the articles the UCI never got around to revising. In the early days; ’80 and forward, “lending”/hiring riders from other teams just prior to the GTs was not that uncommon. It happened and no one thought any of it.
        Enter the EU: Now you have regulations on “workforce” and it’s free mobility across physical and regulative borders and hence you must ensure the rider’s right to get a job when and where it is available. Kind of like a reverse Berufsverbot. So the article was created. But the basic intention; the spirit of the article, was to help riders who were not employed come season, not riders quitting or fired during season.
        So the UCI need to add: “…with no contractual links after the 1st of January in a given year…” to avoid the situation in question.
        On the other hand: Private emplyoees like me, have clauses so I cannot work inthe same line of business for a said period after quitting. If I am fired, the situation is also stipulated in my contract. Does that not work like this for riders: If you retire/quit, do not work in the same line of business for X months/years? If we fire you, you are free to ride for another team…
        If I were a team manager, I certainly would have clauses like that in the contract. Negotiable, of course, but for starters they should be included.

      • I imagine they would argue that Petacchi was “recruited” while still at Lampre. In other words that the tapping up amounted to “recruitment”.

        If Petacchi and OPQS thought they’d be able to disprove this, I’d imagine they’d be off to the CAS but it seems they’ve accepted the decision, suggesting that they know the UCI is right on this one.

  2. Football has a fairly established loan system where unwanted/unneeded players are out on loan to other clubs. Sometimes this can be for the players development or just because they are truly surplus to requirements.
    Such a system could work here as well with the bigger teams having to negotiate with the desired riders team to either meet a budget figure or exchange a couple of riders as compensation. Small teams get what they want, big teams get what they need.

    • American baseball has been doing something similar for over a 100 years, trading. You’ve got someone I want, or I have someone you want, lets works out a trade right now. Player for player, player for multiple players, multiple players for multiple players, player(s) plus money or even player(s) to be named later. All kinds of permutations, but everyone gets something they want/need now. Great way for “big teams” with a high price rider who’s not performing, or happy, to get rid of all, or part, of the salary by trading with a “small team” that needs the publicity boost. Also a good way for “small teams” to give up a rider now to build for the future by taking rider(s) with “potential”.

    • One of the criticisms of the loan system in Britain is the ability of larger clubs with extremely wealthy (and often shady) owners buying up lots of the up and coming talent and then loaning them out to other teams. This restricts the pool of players for other teams to buy, and in some people’s eyes distorts competition.
      I’m not sure whether cycling would have any existing rules to overcome this – such as restrictions on the number of cyclists on their payroll – but this would have to be looked at to prevent the wealthiest teams gaining an unfair advantage.

  3. Just keep the system as is, but allow teams to hire a rider. Both teams and the rider should agree on a compensation. The hired rider counts toward the maximum number of riders in a team. In the petacchi case Lampre could benefit from extra cash without losing a winning rider. Petacchi can test out a new role in a new setting and OPQS can benefit because the rider fills a gap in their roster.

    • also kinda funny (from an australian perspective at least) that in trying to obscure the identity of one pharmaceuticals company mr inrng has used the name of another (in “sigma”).

  4. Doesn’t OPQS have form in ‘creating’ these situations? Or have I misunderstood the Meersmann ‘transfer’ from Lotto?

    • That was a bit different as Lotto-Belisol was not certain of a place in the World Tour so OPQS swooped to poach Meersman. It was a clever move and controversial but the Belgian could get out of his contract given the team’s uncertain status. But this is itself something worth reviewing as it means a team hoping for promotion or to stay in the World Tour could, by virtue of being reviewed, see its best riders flee.

  5. I’m guessing Petacchi’s contract allowed him to retire when he wanted to? I wonder if teams can drop riders mid-season, or if the contracts are pretty much written to protect riders for the season (which would make sense since they wouldn’t want to be dumped during the season because things weren’t going well, right, or if they got injured).

    In some US pro sports, it seems that contracts with players can be traded/sold between teams during the season (with limits?) (sometimes this seems to require the player’s consent, but I don’t know if it always does). But if they’ve signed a contract for however long, players in these sports can’t shop around and leave for another team mid-contract (I think). Can contracts be sold/traded between teams in UCI cycling?

    I’d guess it would be really important to teams to be sure their guy who won, say, an early spring race, wasn’t hired away for the next big spring race. (Imagine a certain team whose spring classics guy was in a serious accident wanting to hire another team’s spring classics guy who wasn’t hurt.)

    • In a number of NA sports players can negotiate “no trade” clauses into their contracts. When this happens then they can only be traded if they agree to waive that clause. Often you see players giving a list of teams they are willing to join. Without a clause like that players can be moved without their consent. Generally it seems like only the big stars get that… but maybe those are the only situations that make the news.

      Most leagues still have a trade deadline, a little while before the end of the season. Generally teams will either pick up experienced players near the end of their current contract if they want to make a run for the championship. in return they send young players – the up and comers to teams who are not doing well this year but want to build for the future.

      Cycling is different of course because the finals are not at the end of the year, but all through out the year…

      Don’t know if I buy Inrng’s talent poaching argument though – surely that already happens during the official transfer window? Problem I see is a player riding with one team for one race, then switching teams for another race, then switch back. It could just get ridiculous…

  6. Full length contracts for the season are a lot easier on the mind for everyone.

    Can you imagine being transferred to a French team, when say, you are of Kazakh nationality with no language skills, appetite for baguettes/brie, and are a sprinter on a Grand Tour-centric team? Might as well grow blueberries 😉

    I can also see a lot of lawyer/agents popping up – demanding no-trade clauses and all those contractual nonsenses, which ultimately cut into rider salaries and pad their pockets.

    In an already poor sport, do we want parity to be even further away between the rich and poor teams during Grand Tours? [ie. the Manchesters/New York Yankees of cycling?]

    Sure, the counter argument is, it’s part of the job and you have to accept those outer trappings. I could see it happening, but I’m not sure if that’s the right way to go about this sport.

  7. I like the idea of a combination the Football model of transfer fees and loans mixed with the baseball style trading. It would really help a team like Androni Giacattoli receive some compensation for the scouting and the training.

    It would definitely add a crazy element just before the Grand Tours. It could be funny, or messy.

      • I think that’s part of the beauty (and frustration) of baseball style trading. A team can make a decision that the year is a bust and basically “clean house” by trading away their big name/big dollar players. This builds up their finances to invest in the future. Could have interesting results in cycling.

  8. I don’t think mid-season trades would work in cycling for reasons others have mentioned. What I would like to see worked out is a mechanism for teams to get fairly compensated when a rider is determined to break his contract to join another team during the winter. Slipstream accepted what was offered from Sky for Wiggo mainly because the alternative was to have a rider on the team who didn’t want to be there and was likely to perform like it. Take what you can and move on is not equitable.

    • Who’s to say what “fair” compensation is, though, other than the parties involved? In your example, Slipstream presumably would have taken account of the reduction in Wiggins’ value to them if he didn’t want to be there, before deciding whether to accept Sky’s offer.

  9. If a mid season transfer window or something similar was created, wouldn’t the current points system also have to be changed esp. with respect to the rules of points being carried over etc. etc.

  10. Stop me if I’m wrong here, but surely evidence of tapping up really has to be made clear, otherwise are the UCI not breaching Petacchi’s right to work?
    In fact you’d think there was almost the potential for this to be pursued in any case even if there was tapping up, as he’s out of contract and he’s available to work.

    • I agree but if a rider declares they want to retire one day and then within a week decides to join a new team then this is too quick and suggests at some sort of interference. Assuming they chose to leave a team (eg it doesn’t go bust), perhaps the rule needs to say “a rider must be out of contract for at least three months before they can join the new team?”

      • Are rider contracts in a standard form (with tweaks for individual matters such as salary)? If so, this would be a sensible provision to include, so that the rider-employer arrangements matched up with the UCI regulatory arrangements.

        That should help to deal with the potential conflict between an individual’s right to work, and the team’s right not to have a rival interfere with its contractual arrangements.

  11. Putting contracts on the side for a moment. I see Cavendish in a potentially difficult situation. He is being dropped on lesser climbs, doesn’t get too much help to get back and his sprint train is not reliable. He looks a bit like an outsider in the team at the moment. The Petacchi incident will not boost his morale either.

      • Has the story from OPQS about him having a mechanical prior to the final climb in TdR Stage 1 being discredited then? Apart from this stage, he’s seems to have got over as many climbs as he’s ever done in the last few years.

        He does seem to be at odds with some of his new team-mates, but Lefevere appears to have backed him in public and done his best to rectify the lead out problems with the attempted Petacchi signing. As others have noted, Steegmans’ lead out in the last ToT stage was superb, so there’s tiny signs of progress, though the OPQS train in the stage before was abysmal. The OPQS Giro team looks odd to me – Steegmans (the most experienced lead out available), Trentin (fair enough), Keisse (meant to be committed to driving the train), the rest (meh). Can’t see those guys matching the OGRE train, though it might be good enough given Cav’s edge over Goss.

        • I agree the Petacchi approach looks a little odd. OPQS have a very experience lead out man in Steegmans so why bring in Petacchi who has (as far as I am aware) little experience of the role. From what I have seen OPQS’s leadout problems stem from the lack of a rider to take on the Hincapie/Martin role from HTC of taking a long turn from about 3 kms out to keep the speed very high and stop other trains coming over. I assume Martin is reluctant to renew that role but maybe he will at the Tour since he will be there anyway and surely no longer has any GC pretensions.

  12. The current system almost works but thete are couple of issues. If a rider retires then you dont assume they will ride again that season, if ever. The current transfer window seems a bit late, why not shift it to the end of the spring classics? imposing a rule change mid season seems harsh but it is the uci so..

  13. I like the idea of a mid-season loan system coupled with slightly more free trading (ie buying/selling as opposed to just picking people up who are out of contract) in the off-season.

    If OPQS were able to loan Petachi for a particular purpose that’d help them, the cash or reverse load would help Lampre as they’d be getting shut of a not winning rider and profiting. Maybe put in a rule for sharing of WT points and you have a situation where larger teams with stronger rosters can loan out their promising younger rider (Dombrowski for example) to a team where he’ll get a ride and potentially earn some points.

    The loan system also means that if a larger team wanted to ‘poach’ a rider from a smaller team they’d have to do it on a loan basis or wait and buy him out of his contact at the end of the season. Loans give a team more flexibility without making planning for a season impossible.

  14. “It’s why cycling has a fixed transfer period, otherwise big teams could raid small teams.”

    Well, all three parties have to agree, don’t they? If the smaller team doesn’t want the rider to leave, he can’t. See no raiding there.

    “A small team could sign a neo-pro on a two year contract only to see them bought away after six months.”

    Speaking of neo-pros. Is it true that neos have to get a two year contract? UCI-rule apparently. I’m asking because this rule (if it exists) is getting broken quite often, without any consequences for the team. For instance, at the end of 2012 Team Type One decided to only employ riders with diabetes and sack all healthy riders. A quite unusual form of dicrimination. Among the sacked riders were a couple of neos (Fortin, Laengen, Preidler [who definitely had a two-year-contract], Serebryakov). Didn’t hear anything from UCI about this.

    • Imagine if the big team starts waving a lot of money. As much as the small team might not like it, the rider could get dollar signs in their eyes and refuse to be a team player for the rest of the season. It’s these softer elements that can cause problems.

      Interesting on the TT1 story, if you’re right that should not have happened. Even paying off riders to leave the team – not saying this happened with TT1 – is questionable as a rider sitting at home is not able to race as planned.

  15. On trades and transfers, if you have a rider who has a certain sell-on value, added to their spiorting value, would it be likely to see teams starting to offer longer, multi-year contracts. Not really to secure the rider’s service on the road, but to inhibit poaching (it would be expensive to buy out a four year contract) and maximise trade value (smaller chance of a rider running down his contract). The plus for teh rider is a more secure, longer term deal.

  16. Your first two lines have made me laugh out loud – which deserves a thank you. You’re a great wordsmith INRNG, maybe the best in our sport. Keep it up.

  17. Why not include a clause that if a rider retires / quits during the season, the team they leave has first refusal if they decide to ‘get back in to the sport’ ?

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