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.
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.
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.