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Rider Recruitment, Pay and Nationality

Imagine you’re a team manager tasked with assembling a new squad. What do you look for in a rider? Talent? UCI ranking points? Sure but nationality is a big issue and coming from the “right” country helps land a contract and possibly higher pay.

You’re better off not being Lithuanian as a pro. The same for Latvians and Estonians. If you come from a Baltic country you have to be really strong to get hired by a good team. You have to work harder than others to succeed.
– Ignatas Konovalovas in L’Equipe, 11 May 2015

That’s the recent winner of the Four Days of Dunkerque who explained that he was dropped from the MTN-Qhubeka team because Cervelo wants riders from wealthy countries like the US, Australia, Netherlands and Norway “where people have enough money to buy a nice bike” in his words. Konovalovas has dropped to the Conti level Team Marseille – KTM squad with whom he rode as an U23 back in 2007 before turning pro. Konovalovas accepts this, it’s business as far as he’s concerned, rather than a big complaint.

The American riders will always be most sought after because the big cycling brands are American and behind them there’s a big market
– Alex Carera, rider agent, L’Equipe, July 2014

It’s self-evident when you look at some teams who careful cultivate a roster with a rider from target markets. A local rider can help with access to a local market. It’s similar to the casting of a James Bond film where each actor from a different nation is used to spearhead the marketing effort in their home country. Some countries matter more than others. What’s needed is to have some riders from key markets. In cycling it’s someone for the fans to follow, for the media to turn to for a quote and the rider can attend local marketing events. Here’s Konovalovas again:

You have to know how to send messages on Facebook and Twitter which will be relayed by the media.

The Lithuanian says that he’ll share a joke among friends on social media but doesn’t go in for much more. This though is the elective part. A rider can’t change their nationality nor their nation’s GDP per capita but they can promote themselves with these means and, at the margin, make themselves more valuable.

Nizzolo hard @ work

Sport or marketing?
All this makes us ask whether we are watching sport or marketing. If it was sport the best rider would be picked regardless of where they came from. If it’s marketing then teams are assembled according to commercial criteria. The reality is somewhere in between, a Venn diagram that scores talent, marketability and more. A rider is picked for ability first but once you go down the distribution of talent and past the superstars there’s a competitive market for talent and having something extra will seal the deal. Helping with access to an important market is useful. By extension of nationality helps land the job it should also help with pay, a greater bidding war for more marketable talent.

Peter Sagan

Ability matters most which is why small Slovakia’s Peter Sagan has one of the largest pay packets in the peloton. His earnings power is boosted by his marketability thanks to those wheelies and memorable victory salutes which make the front page, the evening news bulletins and end up as a glossy adverts. But further down the food chain nationality matters because each team tries to build a roster to help with their marketing. Everything else being equal a rider from a premium consumer market like the UK or USA will get a contract over, say, a Baltic rival. Nationality is just one factor, being able to reach into the local market with good communications and social media counts for plenty too.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Papuass Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 2:18 pm

    “The same for Lithuanians and Estonians.” should be “The same for Latvians and Estonians.”

    • The Inner Ring Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 2:44 pm

      Thanks, fixed this and this comment will self-destruct soon.

  • Gingerflash Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 2:36 pm

    I assume this goes both ways.

    A UK/US/Aus rider might be more attractive to a team, but because of that he will be more expensive, relative to his talent. Plenty of teams have been assembled “on the cheap” with riders from less wealthy nations. For a given price, I would imagine a team would sometimes have a choice between a highly talented rider from a poorer country and a much less talented rider from a richer country.

    If one wants a rider to win X points a year, that might cost £50,000 a year if he’s from Belarus, or £200,000 if he’s from USA.

    Not all team riders are needed to cultivate an image, a fan base, etc. Some/most are needed to just the job quietly.

    • The Inner Ring Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 2:46 pm

      Yes, it works that way as well and spotting riders from new places is a big deal too.

      • Ben Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 7:45 pm

        Expanding into new markets, once they can sustain reasonable enough prices is a *very* big deal for business. It makes the pie bigger rather than competing for a bigger slice of the same pie.

        Which is to say, a bicycle industry company that wants to start selling into a new market would probably show interest in getting a rider hired from that market.

        That said, they would probably only aim to pay them what they needed to to compete with other offers. Which is to say unless other companies wanted to enter that market, there wouldn’t be higher salaries as a result of competition for those riders.

        • Tovarishch Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 8:40 pm

          Interesting point but, despite the popularity of cycling, it is not FMCG and penetration of new markets is not about marketing but more about establishing distribution and dealerships. My choice in Russia is so limited, I import my bikes.

      • mudplugger Sunday, 24 May 2015, 9:34 pm

        There are only 17 British contracted pro’s out of a WT/PC complement of over 900, so they are certainly not flooding the market. It is very difficult for Brits to get on the ladder as there is no PC team, Sky are more focused on buying the best, and there are no major British companies as sponsors pushing for British riders.

  • Bertilak Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 3:37 pm

    @inrng, do you think it has always been this way with the sport? Or is this a relatively recent change?

    “All this makes us ask whether we are watching sport or marketing.”

    That question (along with doping story fatigue and questionable sponsors) is exactly why I sometimes struggle to maintain my interest in the professional sport.

    • The Inner Ring Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 3:52 pm

      It’s new in the sense that are many more nationalities in the peloton today, in times past the field was very Western European and also teams had a national focus without much international marketing.

      But as for sport / marketing as a whole the earliest pro teams were created to market bicycle manufacturers, the Tour de France was launched to sell newspapers etc.

  • Anonymous Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 4:07 pm

    Putting this theory to the likes of Kelly and Roche in the 80s and it is a wonder how they got their contracts.

    The second image shows Sagan, supposedly the highest paid rider in the world, albeit riding for a team where the major sponsor does not necessarily need the advertising, that said there is no way in the world (unless I am missing something) that Slovika is a massive market for Tinkof Credit systems/Saxo Bank et al.

    A rider will garner a fan base (as we saw with the cut outs of Sagan in the ToC) from how they ride and their personality, which is most likely how the aforementioned Kelly (hard/ruthless/respected) and Roche (tough rider, but one you would want to have a beer with) got their large contracts.

    Regardless where a rider comes from, if they are strong and are advised to “create” a seemingly large personality, they will get big contracts.

    • Sam Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 4:23 pm

      I think the BMC Team with van Garderen and Phinney is an excellent example of teams built for marketing reason’s (along with raw talent of course), where BMC is trying to break into the US market in a larger way and selected riders with potential to be “The New Lance” with regards to the impact that he had on Trek sales in the US. Both are high profile, likable, young, and talented riders from a desirable market and people really respond to it; the Phinney/van Garderen craze is pretty strong over here …. and BMC is selling stronger.

      • J Evans Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 4:29 pm

        I’d have thought that VG’s decision to train – illegally – with Armstrong would have put people off.
        Or hoped, at least.

      • Anonymous Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 6:17 pm

        The BMC team cares little for marketing. It’s just a Rihs pet project and he wants to win above all else. The Australian market is tiny but he paid the most for Cadel. It’s about talent at BMC.

        • Sam Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 9:42 pm

          He paid a lot for him, but it turned into a win-win for the team and brand. Australia is now a growing market for cycling of all kinds, just like the US after the Armstrong dominance and the UK after Wiggins and Froome. The goal is to get people interested in the sport, then get them to buy the bike brand they saw the good guys riding.

          It’s not as simple as Rihs only wanting to win.

          • betabug Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 10:02 pm

            Actually I think all of BMC is just a hobby for Rihs, both Team and bicycle brand.

      • channel_zero Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 6:30 pm

        Lance didn’t sell more bicycles. Trek was transitioning to a much more profitable (for Trek) vertical model, there were many more bike types to buy with much wider gear ranges, and substantial progress on bicycle access on roadways was finally happening down on the street level. Lance’s face was on more posters in Trek-only shops, but most bike consumers didn’t and don’t care.

        BMC is mostly a hobby for Rihs.

        • Sam Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 9:40 pm

          The BMC racing team may be a hobby for Rihs (really just financial backing), but is a serious marketing venture for the brand itself to further establish a US market. I know these things because I work in the cycling industry–it’s brand awareness for people who don’t know much about bikes, but will recognize the name if they see it in a shop. The same way Trek=Lance to people who only know that cycling=TourDAYFrance. But yes, the actual revenue increase was largely thanks to restructuring the company.

        • garuda Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 1:06 pm

          How could you possibly say that? The uniballer was everywhere in his 7peat years. He was literally dating a rockstar. To this day, if you ask 100 American to name two professionals who ride bikes (wider net than just road cyclists), 80 would probably say Lance, then not know a second. That omnipresence made bike riding an aspirational recreational activity for millions of people. Those millions, of course, are not going to buy a $2000 bike, but they will buy a $50-$100 bike for exercise, never mind that most of them will be used for all of 10 minutes before being put away for good. A bike is a bike right?

  • J Evans Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 4:28 pm

    For how long will Sagan’s contract remain so fulsome? Read a headline – couldn’t face a whole article about Tinkov – that suggested that Oleg is already regretting the evidently unwise decision to award so much money to a rider who has never won a Monument (and whose 2014 season really didn’t warrant such a contract).
    If Sagan doesn’t up his game, no amount of showboating is going to keep his earnings at their current level.

    • Anonymous Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 4:46 pm

      I think what he is talking about is the current model of contracts. People just make headlines out of it to make it sound more sensational and so it fits into the picture. Not everything he says is wrong, not everything he says is right. In this instance he said: Contracts are made on past performances and the team has the possibility to increase wages during the seasons – when the riders ride good – like he said they did last season, but have no possibility to react if the performance doesn’t fit the money the rider earns. I think it is totally ok to talk about this. It doesn’t mean new contract models have to have an impact in the rider itself. It is possible to secure this through insurances, for example.

      • Ben Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 7:53 pm

        ? Taking the TOC this year in such a dramatic fashion was a big deal. In Europe, “It’s nice, but not a monument.” But in the USA, it’s one of the four or five most important races in the season.

        Tinkoff may not be a brand whose US sales he can improve, but there are several other sponsors who might be inclined to up their contribution. Tinkoff-Specialized, anyone?

        And he’s got a lot of personality/charisma. To the extent that he starts to transcend nationality.

        Taking the current model of contracts issue, Oleg could have structured the contract with less base and more bonus if he had had the foresight to do so. Similarly, he could have structured the monuments teams to have a plan B rider if Peter wasn’t delivering on the day.

        • Anonymous Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 9:00 pm

          Re the foresight concerning Sagan’s contract and the structure of the classics-team: That’s exactly why he is now in the car instead of Bjarne Riis. I do hope he doesn’t stay there too long, because any owner sees things different than a DS and I am no fan of mixing the two.

          • Disgruntledgoat Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 12:13 pm

            From an entertainment perspective, I’m a big fanof mixing the two

  • Anonymous Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 5:19 pm

    its not that surpring since some teams are just funded for the reason to make the brand after which they are named widely known. They want prime time tv coverage in a large market so people can read the name on the jersey.

  • polemica Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 5:32 pm

    As a rich American I approve this message. Also if WT are looking to hire some who can generously be described as a pack finisher in 35+123 office park criteriums….then I am your man. I would be willing to send out lots of tweeters and instachats

    • channel_zero Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 6:38 pm

      The problem is the UCI’s rules have a strong bias for youth at the World Tour level.

      Plenty of domestic teams who would “hire” you by coming in as a sponsor package. ex. “Hire my rider for $15,000/yr and I’ll sign on as a sponsor for the team for $65,000.” This used to be very common at the WT level, but the practice has mostly ended. It is still very common at the National level.

  • Tovarishch Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 5:54 pm

    Interesting the comment regarding Social Media. It is something in which I have zero interest (unless I notice something interesting on the Inrng sidebar) and wonder really of how much vale it is. 40,000 followers are not going to impact significantly on the customer base. A subject for a quiet day Mr/s Inrng?

  • Richard S Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 6:10 pm

    Hence also the recent influx of riders from the Far East appearing in the peleton at top teams. They do little more than fight over the lantern rouge on the road but I’d imagine they are massive marketing tools.

    • garuda Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 4:21 pm

      I’m sure Yukiya Arashiro resents you lumping him together with Fumiyuki Beppu.

  • Anonymous Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 6:22 pm

    This is a broader issue about how weak the sponsorship is in cycling. Too many cycling industry sponsors, not enough outside money. Small emerging markets like Lithuania are attractive to bigger mutlinational companies, because that’s where the growth is, especially relative to Western Europe. Eastern European cyclists would be perfect for these companies’s marketing needs, but cycling can’t seem to attract these anymore. I’m surprised tech companies haven’t jumped in and sponsored cycling – Twitter, FB, Google, or Yelp.

  • channel_zero Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 6:52 pm

    Konovalovas’ remarks are a “grass is always greener on the other side” view.

    The American federation does not promote the sport in the U.S. It is perfectly content that promoters operate most events completely out of site. Prize lists have steeply declined while the Federation’s fees have increased. On top of all of that, USAC’s product (their rules define the events) is terrible. The sport in the U.S. does not support domestic athletes at all. Our current road race and crit champion has a real job.

    What the federation is actually interested in is selling high ranking events to billionaire hobbyists like phil anschutz.

    • betabug Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 10:08 pm

      There’s a term for that, it’s called “first world problems”. You could ask the guy what the Lithuanian federation is doing for their riders. I don’t know them, but my guess is, it would make you feel all warm and fuzzy about your USAC 😉

      • channel_zero Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 1:02 am

        What’s USA Cycling doing for their riders? Nothing.

        They have a couple of National points rankings and the last time I checked were worth nothing. For example, being the most consistent “pro” rider over a series of races (NRC?) gets the rider nothing but their name at the top of a list from USAC at the end of the season.

        • Ronin Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 3:31 am

          I can think of a few things USAC does for riders. They spent a lot of money on a Belgian training center a few years ago, although I’ve not heard of it in the news lately. It’s a more expansive version of the old “Belgian house,” from which a lot of the current US WT pros benefited. They assemble and fund, to varying degrees, women’s US national teams for road races abroad, when US teams can’t afford to go. They have coaching staff working with youngsters and planning training and racing for Olympic cycles, for women at least.

          At any rate, it seems a lot of your complaints are about the quality of US domestic racing. Well, what’s your plan? And, where does the money come from?

          • channel_zero Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 10:20 pm

            They spent a lot of money on a Belgian training center a few years ago
            FYI invited riders do not enjoy the services for free. They have to pay to attend.

            assemble and fund, to varying degrees, women’s US national teams for road races abroad,
            Invited riders do not ride for free. But, yes, for sure, USAC puts teams together for high ranking events. It is definitely not a charity.

            They have coaching staff working with youngsters and planning training and racing for Olympic cycles, for women at least.
            Yes, they pay some salaries for coaching staff. Training events are not free or particularly low cost… You are not wrong though.

  • J Evans Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 7:53 pm

    Looks like nationality will be an even bigger issue after today’s race.

    • hoh Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 8:18 pm

      Inner Ring always has a very keen sense of what’s going on in cycling.

      On the other hand, the punishment sounds a bit disportionate. I thought it would be 2000CHF & 20 seconds rather than 200CHF & 2 mins. Did UCL swapped the financial & time penalty around after it didn’t deter Froome the last time? To all fairness, Froome would still win even if it was 200CHF & 2 mins.

    • tj Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 8:25 pm

      yeah, Looks like the biggest marginal gain for sky would be to read the rule book.

      • Anonymous Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 8:53 pm

        Or use tubeless. Why wouldn’t you on a flat stage. I just don’t understand the resistance to tubeless among the pros

        • channel_zero Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 1:03 am

          Actually, tubular is the right choice for racing. It could have been ridden quite far flat.

          • Anonymous Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 5:31 am

            Porte was on tubulars. How did that help? Why are they the right choice? With tubeless, Porte wouldn’t have had to stop at all and still have those 3 minutes.

          • channel_zero Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 10:26 pm

            I can’t teach you about the sport in a comments section. The sport is slow to change.

            Tubulars just work.

      • Foley Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 10:39 pm

        The Porte/Clarke wheel change, what a perfect little story– love everything about it, including the ruthless crackdown on Aussie mateship. Can’t have that! Brailsford can debate whether the rules should be enforced in this case, but we know Mr Ring will not be swayed. It’s a good/necessary rule and WT riders should be aware of it. Some of the 2 minutes would have been lost anyway waiting for a legit wheel…

        • KB Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 12:16 am

          Giro ‘polemica’…sport or marketing!? 😉

    • MarkH Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 9:20 pm

      You mean Australians helping Australians or the Italian commisaire helping the Italian Fabio Aru in an Italian race?

      • J Evans Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 9:22 pm

        See my comments on Giro Stage 10 Preview.

      • Vitus Tuesday, 26 May 2015, 12:45 am

        You may want to get information about nationalities of the Giro jury. But better not, you would be surprised and it could destroy your CT….

  • Pj Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 8:36 pm

    Does this mean that Nigel Farage is going into cycling? British cyclists for British teams. Owned by Australian/Americans.

  • Othersteve Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 9:22 pm

    On a similar note, yesterday I was shopping in a local grocery store in Nevada City CA. I run into a 1/2 size display of Mark Cavendish trying to sell me a bag of California Pistachios.
    Was I ever blown away! (Obviously a Cali / Amgen co promotion project, 1 in 50 californians might know who he is!)

    I think that Lemond going to a Franco team ( Renault and LaVie) was the first marketing move for a WT team entering the American market and it worked to the determent of the team dynamics.

    Hope the same dynamics are not as prevalent in teams who have similar marketing plans in todays peleton.

  • KB Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 9:35 pm

    I thought this post would mention Ishibashi (Nippo-Vini Fantini), who had a firm grip on the ‘maglia nera’ until he abandoned the Giro. I had the impression his presence was at the sponsor’s behest more than for sporting reasons.

    What about Europcar’s token Canadian? Was Veilleux, now Duschene.

    Although cars now seem more popular in China than bicycles, there are quite a few races, and Cheng Ji seems to be quite popular as the first Chinese rider in the Tour. I don’t know how that impacts sales of Giant bicycles though.

    • The Inner Ring Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 10:08 pm

      The Giro was a bridge too far for neo-pri Ishibashi, the Japanese U23 TT champion but he didn’t hold the maglia nera every day, he lost it at one point before abandoning. As for Europcar, that’s the effect of sponsor Louis Garneau.

  • betabug Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 10:10 pm

    Is Europcar doing big business in Namibia?

  • GingerTart Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 6:51 am

    With the new trend for middle-eastern dictatorships to import WT races (Tours of Dubai. Oman, etc.), when will we see top level pros from the middle east (Apart from MTN’s Algerians)?

  • MattF Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 9:47 am

    You’ve got to wonder how many Kazakhs there would be in the pro peloton without the funding behind the Astana team. In other words Inrng, spot on again.

  • peloton.pl Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 12:37 pm

    Konovalovas right, he is not the first one to point this out.
    But on top of my head I can see Colombians are likely to be exceptions. I doubt their market is big for bikes yet there are plenty of them in peloton

    • Gringoid Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 2:56 pm

      You’d be hard pressed to find a more cycling mad country than Colombia. It’s hard to believe how many people ride here. While the average Colombian doesn’t have a lot of money, there’s more money every day and more nice bikes every day.

      I see tons of Specialized, Giant, Cervelo, Pinarello, etc everyday. It’s got to be a fairly sizeable market.

      • Carton Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 6:04 pm

        They’re also probably the next best thing until a great Mexican or Brazilian rider comes along. I’m betting that though Colombian riders are definitely far, far more marketable in Colombia than elsewhere, Latin-American riders in general have at least a little bit more marketing potential in that market of 600M consumers where major multinational advisers often run variations of the same campaigns.

        • Anonymous Wednesday, 20 May 2015, 10:05 pm

          You made me change my mind gents, thx 🙂

      • garuda Thursday, 21 May 2015, 8:45 am

        A good hunk of those brands you mention are decaled onto no name carbon, aluminum and steel bikes though.

  • Dave Thursday, 21 May 2015, 2:36 pm

    will we reach a stage where riders are also chosen for their ability to pay for their own places? In F1 and MotoGP riders csn effectively buy their place on the team with personal sponsorship deals (or extremely rich daddys).

    When the brilliant, much loved and hugely marketable Rossi moved back to the factory Yamaha team, his personal sponsorship package with Monster Energy was so wealthy it bought out team-mate Lorenzo’s personal $1M/year deal with rival energy drink company RockStar AND became a co-sponsor of the team.

    I seem to remember Cavendish had a few issues with personal sponsors clashing with team sponsors (isn’t he a Nike shoes man) and seems to be building brand CVNDSH or whatever it is. I do laugh whenever I see Cav tweet something about “pistachio power”, but then Sagan has some similarly low-rent promotions going on.

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