On Development Teams

At first glance the image above looks like a graphic from the Groupama-FDJ team. Well it is… but from their Continental development rather than the main World Tour squad. They’re one of six WorldTeams to have a formal UCI development team and more are likely to set them up.

This week’s “neo-pros to watch” post was already long so there wasn’t time to look at the phenomenon of junior riders turning pro only to spend a couple of years on light programs in the pro ranks instead of racking up wins and learning race craft in the U23 ranks. There’s now a pathway that represents the best of both worlds thanks to the advent of Continental development teams.

It’s hardly a flood, but moreriders are being recruited straight out of the junior ranks. Some will become superstars, some won’t. But as Groupama-FDJ’s development team manager put it there’s more chance of finding a nugget by recruiting a kid star than hiring someone in their last year of the U23s or even later, although there are always exceptions (think Ag2r Citroën’s Geoffroy Bouchard, KOM in the Giro and Vuelta after turning pro aged 27). So several teams have been taking punts on juniors in the hope they’ll become superstars and have first option on retaining them.

Sometimes it’s felt like riders have turned pro so early because if one team didn’t take them straight away then they’d sign elsewhere, prompting a team to take them early. Proving this is another thing, no team is going to say “we didn’t think such-and-such is ready to be a pro but gave him a contract to stop him going to a rival team” although you can read between the lines and get this with a few cases. The point here isn’t to name those concerned, more to consider the issue as a whole. Teams want to sign the best talent but if they do there’s still a gulf coming into the World Tour, race distances can double. Here’s where UCI Continental development teams, aka Conti Devo, can come in.

The Rules Bit
A World Tour or Pro Team can have a development team but it must be the same nationality and crucially, registered by the parent team as a UCI Continental team. In plain English this means a top-tier or a second tier cycling team can have have their development team but it has to be registered as a third tier team.

Currently six World Tour teams have a Conti development team: DSM, Jumbo-Visma, Groupama-FDJ, Israel, Astana and new for 2022, EF Education. Other World Tour teams have feeder outfits but the likes of Ag2r Citroën with its Chambéry CF team don’t count as they’re not registered as UCI Continental teams. Bahrain has a Conti team but so far it’s to bring on Bahraini riders rather than a nursery for the World Tour. The idea here is for a real development squad, formally registered with the UCI and not a club.

There are costs. Conti teams are regulated by the relevant national federation who set registration fees. In France Conti teams are defined as pro teams and riders get a salary and social security contributions but that’s a local exception, this isn’t obligatory elsewhere. Still all Conti riders must have a contract, even if unsalaried. If wages are paid, then a bank guarantee to cover a portion of the wage bill must be raised. There’s also a UCI registration to pay, between €6,500 and €1,300 depending on the country, anti-doping contribution included. And as a Conti team they can do some local races but not all; the benefit here though is they can do international races.

That’s what’s needed to get a team going. But it’s what happens during the season that’s more interesting. The development riders can ride all the U23 and other races they like, but crucially since 2020 their riders can join their parent World Tour team to race .Pro and .1 races. If it’s a .Pro race then the team can have two riders on the team from the Conti development team, if it’s a Class 1 then the team can have four development riders. It allowed Olav Kooij to win against the pros in 2020 in the 2.1 Settimana Coppi e Bartali back in 2020.

Embed from Getty Images

Substitutions can work the other way where up to two World Tour pros can do a .1 race and one of them can take part in a .2 semi-pro race. This allows an experienced rider to drop down for a day and guide younger riders, passing on experience and leadership.

On UCI points, which are important this season, if a rider is promoted to the World Tour team for the day, their points still go to their Conti team rather than the bigger squad.

In practice
It’s got to be a great way for a pro team to get a top rider under contract but give them a calendar to suit, especially if they are straight out of the juniors. It’s like the stagiaire system but instead of the late season, it can be planned all year. The fringe benefit is a Conti team can also work as a reserve squad, if riders are injured or fatigued, a Conti rider can be drafted in for cover too.

Crucially a superstar junior can be given a job contract, even a six figure salary if that’s required to win any bidding war. Then as soon as they are ready to for a diet of World Tour races they can be promoted up to the World Team: signing a multi-year deal with a Conti devo outfit needn’t mean staying there for that long.

So far so good?
It’s hard to see downsides to this system but it could mean the U23 ranks become the preserve of the big World Tour teams who will dominate the scene. Silos can form where big budget squads draw in the best riders and this puts barriers in front of other riders. For example if a rider comes from a country with a big junior calendar and gets to do international junior races then they’re an obvious pick for a Conti devo team belonging to a World Tour squad. A promising junior from a smaller country won’t have these opportunities, they’ll then have to join a club in, say, France, Italy or Belgium and find themselves with fewer resources up against the big squads.

World Tour teams have grown, with more staff and infrastructure and increased budgets. Many have added women’s teams. Now to improve rider recruitment they’re expanding in to development teams and via formal UCI teams directly under their control instead of feeder clubs. The substitution rules are the game-changer, effectively a season-long stagiaire system and allowing riders to move up for particular goals as and when needed. Meanwhile recruiting riders out of the junior ranks is becoming a thing now and placing them on a Conti team at first gives them everything they could want: a contract, a salary, access to the World Tour coaching staff and even that pro jersey all while their new employer can keep a close eye on them and set them suitable goals. More teams will probably do it.

38 thoughts on “On Development Teams”

  1. Interesting.
    We’re seeing a few young riders who are coming from multi-discipline backgrounds (CX, MTB).
    Will the advent of development teams hinder this or are the riders allowed to do other stuff?

  2. This seems like a no-brainer for wealthy teams, and as pointed out could be a real boon to young riders with potential and talent who otherwise might get washed out in the very difficult transition from juniors to world tour. I think overall it’s good for the sport, as probably more talented young riders will have a chance to develop to their potential, but for smaller teams and non-cycling countries it could (as mentioned) be a substantial net minus.

  3. “…downsides to this system but it could mean the U23 ranks become the preserve of the big World Tour teams who will dominate the scene”
    That’s one downside. Once they burn out a few of these promising juniors they’ll figure this out and remember why this was set up in the first place. Someone’s always gotta cut corners and try to outsmart the competition. The categories were/are set up for a purpose, like ’em or not.

    • Correct… but they weren’t named in the piece as they’re not a World Tour team. Uno-X does too. It’s a good system for these teams as well and shows these them having a strategy (and funding) that their rivals in this second tier might not have.

  4. Wonder when lesser teams will sell contracts to better funded teams?

    If this follows Futbol or Formula One – the developing teams have an incentive to take “young talent” to market.

  5. Yvon Madiot has made the good point that the WT team can complete race rosters with riders delighted to be there rather than reluctant and off-form WT riders strongarmed in but apt to go through the motions. In some ways it seems a good way a getting a larger pool of riders without exceeding WT numbers, and if Conti devo riders transfer to the WT teams the WT team knows what it’s getting in terms of character and integrity rather than just results and numbers.

    I was surprised to see Leo Hayter leaving the DSM devo team after a good season where at times his team showed considerable understanding of Hayter’s difficulties. It seems not only a little ungrateful but also removes him from a natural line of promotion to WT. Odd.

    • “…riders delighted to be there rather than reluctant and off-form WT riders strongarmed in but apt to go through the motions. ” might suggest there’s something wrong with the WT’s general concept?
      No, no…of course not. “Don’t worry Captain Smith, we’ve got those deck chairs arranged perfectly!”

      • Exactly before the world tour no team ever raced a rider who would have preferred to be elsewhere. Unheard of. All riders were given perfect rest and preparation at all times. It was like paradise.

        • “It was like paradise.” Perhaps not, but I’m still waiting for someone (anyone?) to tell me what was fixed/improved by the WT, other than maybe the UCI’s bank balance or Ol’ Heinie’s expense account?

          • {Delves in with trepidation…}

            Whatever the rights and/or wrongs and the side benefits (bank balance etc), it was mainly an attempt to give a coherency to a season of bike racing with sports fans in general used to some sort of structure.

            The are of course numerous issues to this. First and foremost a ‘season’ where it might seem to some that there’s 500 different competitors all popping up randomly to race. It’s always going to be a ‘problem’ when there’s not the tribal element of supporting a team for most cycling fans.

            Square pegs and round holes come to mind Larry but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to build a way of the season having some sort of overarching point to it. Not that I can offer anything better. 😉

          • Larrick – Was any of that accomplished? I thought Heinie’s big push was for the globalization of pro cycling, which has pretty much fallen flat, but the insane costs of fielding a WT team persist. Somehow, having WT teams guaranteed entry (and required to show up) in all the big races was gonna create new events worldwide and grow the sport. “..coherency to a season of bike racing” was already there. WT added nothing.
            Instead, we end up with a situation described here: WT teams putting in development riders because the big stars are too tired or otherwise don’t want to race. Further, you now have the issues of gaming the points system to avoid relegation and for 2022 a whole bunch of WT teams announcing their big stars will be skipping Il Giro in favor of LeTour. Pre-WT, a guy like Mauro Vegni at RCS could ask a team who was going to ride? If they were sending a team of also-rans he might not invite them and instead bring in other teams who really want to race for the win rather than just make up numbers and fulfill a WT obligation. Under WT rules he can’t do this and it keeps teams really keen on doing something at Paris-Roubaix or the Giro on the sidelines while WT teams with zero ambitions in those races just make up the numbers.
            How is that an improvement?

          • “How is this an improvement”

            Well as I didn’t state it was and said “round holes and square pegs”, I’m probably not the best person to ask.

            The nuance is though that there have been improvements, especially around minimum salaries etc that are much easier to implement when you need the controlling body to grant you a licence for a WT.

            If you don’t look at it holistically and you look only at certain areas, you can argue one way or the other easily enough but overall, there’s been good and bad. The inherent problem is the sport doesn’t fit into the expectations that many armchair sports fans have of either a league or the best against the best on a regular basis. It’s a global sport but still a niche one and that is the problem. Whoever is in charge.

    • DJW hits on one of the weaknesses of the development teams, the fact that they need to invest considerable sums on their riders but have no guarantee that those riders will join them if/when a unicorn reaches WT level. A breakout talent can be noticed by other teams at U23 level, and unless the main squad is among the richest and can afford a bidding war with Ineos/Jumbo/UAE, they’re out of luck.

      I remember Andy Rhys yelling about that, when the BMC development squad was one of the most highly regarded ones, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Groupama’s management follow suit soon. Among last year’s roster, Marijn Van den Berg is leaving to EF, Hugo Page to Intermarche, Alexandre Balmer to GreenEdge, arguably their most promising riders. In the seasons before that, the likes of Mattia Petrucci and Ziga Jerman have left the dev team only to turn pro somewhere else.

      • But doesn’t this system have two advantages? One, it allows the team to sign the young rider to a longer contract than a regular dev team would, since a progressive transition to WT is baked. And two, the team and rider have the chance to see how the youngster mixes with the WT team and how they perform in selected WT races. And one assumes that if the team (both on the WT side and the dev side) does a good job of developing that rider, that rider will be predisposed to sign a new contract with the parent WT team when the contract is up. Of course if the rider is on, say, the EF dev team, and Ineos wants them badly enough, and the rider decides they want the bigger $, then they’ll change teams. But that’s the system we’re in already. In this system, a team like EF can take a chance of a rider who’s not a clear ‘unicorn’ and work with them over a couple of years, and that young rider has a smoother transition from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end.

      • Further thought – this system doesn’t change a whole lot for the true ‘unicorns’ (e.g., Sagan, Pogacar, Evenepoel, etc.). They’ll end up in the WT at age 20 and be just fine. It’s the young riders who show flashes of brilliance in the junior levels but are still a gamble. I think it has obvious advantages for those riders.

        • I’m not so sure, as riders are being recruited straight out of the junior ranks. See Marco Brenner who was winning so much as a junior and went to DSM. By all accounts he had a good 2021 season but you have to look for the small clues – a breakaway in the Dauphiné, the others on the road couldn’t hold his wheel – rather than big results. But can’t help feel the halfway place of the devo team could have let him race with the big team some days and then do other races at different times.

          • I take your point. I was thinking more of young U23 riders who turn out to be “unicorns.” Of course, you can’t really tell who is a unicorn except in retrospect (as it is in the tech start-up world), so it’s a bit of circular logic for me to say that “true unicorns” like Sagan, Pogacar, and Evenepoel have done OK without this new system. And for potential unicorns who are being put onto World Tour teams at 18, I think the new system will likely be much better for them, as you point out in the case of Marco Brenner.

      • That’s the downside but with the new rules (well, since 2020) you can hire someone you were going to hire anyway and give them a good programme. If you lose others along the way – BMC wanted to keep Sivakov – it’s a problem but only they’re really likely to become a big star. The costs are high for Groupama-FDJ as the minimum salary is €22k for Conti riders in France but elsewhere it’s much lower, riders on other teams like Axeon are on half that, or less but again for a big star rider out of the junior ranks they’ll sign for a lot more.

        So you can place your future star on the devo team at a high salary but they can probably race for a year at a level that suits rather than paying the same high price and having them do World Tour races and more from the start.

        The next thing the UCI is looking at is some kind of development/transfer fee so when a rider is hired by a bigger team the smaller one gets some kind of compensation but it’s under review and must be a minefield to design.

        • Perhaps they wouldn’t necessarily have to re-invent the wheel though?
          Football (again, sorry!) has a model set up to value compensation to clubs who get youngsters signed if a transfer fee can’t be agreed.
          Presumably there are measurable parameters as part of that process that could be replicated in cycling.
          If the athlete is still a child (under 16 years) there are also rules about providing / ensuring that they’re educated, taking them out of their native country etc.

          • Football and F1 are constantly trotted out (and I’m the one told to “give it a rest”?) as examples for pro cycling to follow. IHMO we don’t need any more contests for plutocrats and oligarchs to wave their financial phalli in our (and their competitor’s) faces.
            Let ’em race their so-called boats in the America’s Cup or launch giant rockets (if those aren’t phalli I don’t know what are) into space, but don’t invite them into cycling, please!

          • Agree on the football vs cycling comparison, Larry. I always hear football’s model fetishised in cycling media but it’s a fake comparison (I’ll come back to that) and wrongly presumes that all is fine and dandy in the football world.

            In reality all the governing bodies are at each other’s throats, the greedy elite clubs are trying to breakaway from models which have existed for 100 years+ and the UK Government is even threatening to legislate to reign the game in! Supporters who go to games are routinely ignored as TV and global fan bases prioritised.

            Cycling is just different. It isn’t a sport which builds in a granular fashion to end of season crescendos. There are phases – Spring Classics, Grand Tours, Lombardia & Worlds which work just fine. Totally different to football where the trophies aren’t handed out until the end of season.

            Football fan vs cycling fan. Hardcore fans are tribal and often support their home town or city with which they feel kinship / have family links etc. Players, managers, owners come and go. But most big teams in world football are now more than a century old.

            Cycling is just different. Even the most successful teams disappear within a matter of years, it’s the races that remain, and the races which fans feel kinship for (with a short term fandom around a small number of elite riders). Other than media rights for the biggest races I don’t really know how you monetise that given there’s no entrance fee and no huge demand for team-specific cycling merch.

            tl;dr – cycling isn’t football and never will be (but that isn’t bad… it’s just different).

          • Michael B – sorry if I somehow failed to indicate I pretty much know all that. Cycling IS different in some ways and I’d like it to stay that way despite the efforts of backers like INEOS. I wish we could somehow get it out of “sportwashing” by autocratic regimes as well, something I blame “Heinie’s Folly” for as the costs are so crazy few can afford to field a competitive WT team, making it too easy and tempting for Bahrain, UAE, Kazakhstan and others. Cycling needs less of them and more Jumbos, Movistars, Segafredos, etc.

          • Clearly there are structural differences between football and cycling. Most aren’t relevant.

            One difference is relevant here, namely that there is a mature market for transferring in-contract football players, whereas this is the exception in cycling. Given that most of the solidarity payments in football come from a proportion of the transfer fee, this would appear to be difficult to replicate in cycling.

            On the other hand, there is also a mechanism for a training compensation payments in football, calculated when a player signs his first pro contract, and payable to each club which trained him from the ages of 12 to that point. There may be something that could be done in cycling.

            However, the biggest impediment could be one of the main differences between cycling and football: football clubs earn vastly more than cycling teams. Could cycling teams afford training compensation payments?

          • There are hundreds of countries playing football, each with many leagues so there’s bound to be something to learn. One issue would be that the big teams can handle these contracts, it’s the small teams who’d hope to receive the compensation/sale income that might struggle, most won’t have contract lawyers on standby. So UCI “joint agreement” template could work here.

  6. Good to see the UCI has time to put together a whole new rule set for male Dev teams, but still can’t set-up a proper female U23 Worlds schedule until “some time in the future”.

    Slightly related point, @Inrng – any chance of a future article looking at the UCI’s central prize-money distribution system? Obviously has become a contested topic on the Womens side, but it would be interesting to get a good explanation of the system & how it relates to the relevant Unions & Federations as this is updating for the Male peloton as well.

    And just to be on-topic here – sounds pretty good to me to update this system and make it feel more modern. Does seem like it could be slightly gamed by teams to get around injuries or take advantage of a rapidly developing talent to gain the now more important rankings points vs teams that don’t have a dev squad.

    • You could make an U23 Worlds overnight, but what you really need is a calendar of U23 races for women. For me the whole point of U23 is a development category and amid this the worlds is just a season-ending crown after a full year of racing with one days, stage races of all types etc. So by all means have a worlds at the stroke of a pen… but if this happened we’d immediately ask when we can see the jersey, why there aren’t any U23 races (apart from the Euro U23s)? But this is a lot harder to get off the ground. So why not have an U23 race to start with, but this doesn’t really solve much apart from offering some riders a late season goal.

      Watching the prize money issue, the CPA’s spat with the rival union undignified to put it mildly.

      As for gaming to cover for injuries, I can see that but it’s sort of a reward if you’ve set up a whole team. It can also just allow you to race on even more fronts, to do two simultaneous World Tour races and have two squads in action elsewhere, assuming there’s enough vehicle and staff support.

Comments are closed.