The Back Door

There’s plenty of news of rider transfers with several teams making a series of announcements, signing new riders to strengthen the team. It’s exciting and it’s the future.

But what of the others, the riders who are not making the headlines, those who are likely to be out of contract? They’ll quietly leave the sport by the back door.

In = Out
Teams are capped at a maximum of thirty riders so every new signing means another rider has to leave. For each new young talent recruited, an old dog is shown the door. A decade ago they were the future.

Of course the direction can change, out can equal in. If a rider is leaving they’ll inform their team and this can free up space and cash to recruit new riders. Typically a star of the European U-23 amateur cohort can be signed for less than the cost of a departing mountain lieutenant. For example Peter Stetina is leaving Garmin-Sharp for BMC Racing and his departure frees up cash and space for the likes of Lasse Hansen, the 2012 Olympic champion in the velodrome.

Late Notice
Pro contracts run the length of a calendar year and many can be more than a year long but if a contract is due to expire at the end of the year a team has to inform the rider before the end of September whether they will get a ride for the following year. The contract can be renewed or adjusted or it could lapse and leave the rider out of a job.

The September deadline is beneficial to team owners ahead of riders. An mean manager could string a rider along with talk of the possibility of contract extensions only to send a written notice that the rider is no longer required just before the end of September. This leaves the rider looking for a job but by now most teams have built their rosters for the next year and it’s very late to find a job.

Gerdemann got dropped

See the case of Linus Gerdemann, who – believe it or not – says he didn’t learn he was out of contract until much later in 2012 or Matt Brammeier who first read OPQS would not extend his contract… in a newspaper.

Like all jobs it pays to take charge of your career. A rider sitting back waiting for news to arrive by September is almost being neglectful. Instead they need to get busy much earlier in the year. Most riders have agents and they’ll be busy during the summer on behalf of their clients. A sideways move to another team is likely, think of Samuel Dumoulin moving from Cofidis to Ag2r La Mondiale last winter. Sometimes riders have to take a step down but this can be just the spur to rediscover old talents in a new environment, see how Gerald Ciolek’s departure from OPQS to MTN-Qhubeka turned out, giving the African team a huge win whilst OPQS had a poor classics season by their high standards.

No contracts for old men
The chart above might look like a stage profile but it shows the distribution of World Tour and Pro Continental pros for by age, from two 19 year olds Jasper de Buyst and Andrei Strelkov to one 42 year old in Davide Rebellin. The average age of a pro is 28.2 years although note the peak at 89 24 year olds.

The point with the chart is to demonstrate that once a rider goes beyond 32 their chances of employment go downhill quite quickly and a lot of riders are leaving the pro ranks before they turn 30. Jens Voigt and Chris Horner get attention precisely because they’re the exception. Riders are like wines in that they can improve with age but the improvements in ability, tactical awareness and experience are generally banked by the time a rider is 30.

See it coming
Of course most riders know their time is up. A few will chose to retire at the height of their powers – Bernard Hinault and Lance Armstrong before his ruinous comeback are examples – and many carry on for longer until the motivation is not there or they’re finding it harder to do the job. Retirement can seem a cruel word for someone in their thirties but it typically signifies the end of a long spell in the peloton and hopefully means the rider has had time to build up a pension pot.

What’s harder is when many in their twenties find their contract’s up and nobody is offering them a role in the pro peloton. The promise of talent hasn’t worked out, maybe injury and bad luck have played a part.

Signing that neo-pro contract for the first time is one thing but the real deal is extending it and maintaining a career, either through wins or most often as a valuable helper on the team. For many a contract extension is the norm but plenty of riders are non conservé or out of contract and hunting for a job and time is running out to find a place for 2014.

Some can stay in the sport, take a pay cut and ride with a lower level team, squads like Vini Fantini, United Healthcare and Champion System often pick up valuable riders this way. Some Euro pros end up doing US races or go further, see Spaniard Óscar Pujol who won Indonesia’s Tour of Singkarak in 2012 and rode with the Iranian Azad team. Others drop down to the amateur ranks, Mathieu Perget was 24th overall in the 2011 Vuelta but didn’t get a contract for this year and rode as an amateur before winning a few races and riding for the CMI-Greenover team and now with the UCI Continental team Rietumu-Delfin of Latvia, presumably on a lot less than the World Tour minimum wage.

When Dave (Brailsford) offered me the job I thought it was a joke, some kind of British humour

A few take up team jobs, think Nicolas Portal who saw his contract up with Sky and thought the offer to become a manager wasn’t real. But most go back to what they knew before signing a pro contract, resuming studies or putting apprenticeship skills to use and rejoin the real world where “whereabouts” means the workshop or office from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday.

We see the new signings and read of exciting talent being signed but the riders they replace become a footnote, casualties in the war for future talent. Every year a bunch of riders will quietly leave the peloton by the back door, careers swept up by the broom wagon of time.

Tour de France broom wagon

29 thoughts on “The Back Door”

  1. I guess its the ‘cycle of life’. In our subconscious we are all aware that the working time for many pros is a dogs life, a constant struggle in events and to find that elusive form. We read and hear about the successful members of the peloton all the time, but most give little thought for those who struggle for one reason or another.
    Thank you for the reminder INRNG. As usual an excellent take outside the main stream.

  2. I’d be interested to know if there were many (or indeed any) riders for whom rejection was the making of them, bouncing back after a period as an amateur to reach greater heights.

    • L.A.

      He didn’t go as far back as riding amateur, but after being dropped by Codifis, it took some time before being picked up by Postal for short money. Who knows (and we’ll probably never know the full truth of the story), but this probably is the time period that he developed his plan.

  3. Thanks for the article, INRNG.

    Re the ‘No contracts for old men’ section: I think another strong factor is that as riders get older they take longer to recover from an injury, and are perhaps more susceptible to niggles etc.

    • I wonder how the age profile has changed during the history of the sport? There do seem to be a lot of younger riders coming through at the moment but maybe that is an illusion caused by the press coverage that I read. Is there perhaps a phenomenon of prime-age (26-32) riders leaving the sport for one reason and another at the moment, maybe due to increased commercial pressure and a changing pharmaceutical context?

  4. “A sideways move to another team is likely, think of Samuel Dumoulin moving from Cofidis to Ag2r La Mondiale last winter.” In the case of Dumolin the fact that his father-in-law runs Ag2r might have had something to do with it.

  5. Nice post! TdF should bring back the broom, there’s something to be said for tradition and custom. It must be quite a shock to these sportsmen, all the travel and having so much of their life taken care of by others – suddenly ends with their contract. Is it any shock when some get involved in drinking, recreational drugs or chasing women? BigTex’ ill-fated comeback was likely motivated to some extent by this. What’s a relatively young, poorly educated man going to do with the rest of his life? Something far too few pay attention to during their cycling careers. The Badger was invisible for awhile after his retirement (there’s a guy who called it a day at the top of his game, no riding around looking pathetic for him!) but boredom certainly brought him back to LeTour in his current capacity.

  6. I’m kind up pulling for Chris Horner to win the Vuelta. I really think the guy has it in him to win a GT! He just needs things to go right for him, for a change. Being a bit older myself, but feeling fitter than ever, I think the ‘Elder Statesmen’ of the peloton can do great things. It’s amazing what our bodies are capable of, when we maintain them well. And with the science of nutrition and aging well advancing at an exponential rate, we could see more riders racing into their 40s and beyond!

  7. There some psychology involved to. Some riders can’t take the pressure of the spotlights. A good example is Gert Steegmans, who apparently has ridiculous power output, but lacks the brash personality a good sprinter needs. Another example is Robert Gesink.

    On the other hand some riders can only function if they are made the star. Can you imagine Thomas Voeckler playing second violin to Froome and Wiggins in Sky or taking part in OPQS sprint train?

  8. Not all of them operate at the 30 rider cap though, correct? So some of the smaller teams don’t always have to let someone go to bring on someone new.

  9. Aussie Cameron Wurf rejoined Cannondale earlier this year after a year in ‘limbo’ with Pro Conti team Champion Systems. After being brought onto Liquigas Cannondale by Ivan Basso (a great story in itself) under the Italian system of GC leaders bringing their Gregarios onto the team with them, Basso re-signed by there was confusion with his and Wurf’s manager and the team. The expectation was that Basso would require Wurf to be signed also, but when Wurf wasn’t re-signed he lost nothing in terms of fitness and hunger and was back this year in the Giro (stage 1 this year he spent 109km’s off the front).

    Australian Pro Conti team Drapac is about the only team I have heard of who insists on its riders having a life off the bike, either a university course or career. To quote their website: “We instead look to create multi dimensional people, not just athletes, by placing equal emphasis on athletic, career, personal and social development”. Admirable ethos.

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