Vertical Integration

Per Strand Hagenes wins the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro. Jumbo-Visma had three riders in the ten rider breakaway. Only Per Strand Hagenes rides for a separate team, Jumbo-Visma Development Team and had joined the World Tour team for the day. Of course there’s only a fine distinction between the two teams… and that’s the point.

More and more teams are changing their approach to talent identification and recruitment. Increasingly a team’s prime source of new talent is their development team and these squads are becoming structured and brought under direct control of the parent team.

Vertical integration is a business term used to describe when a company buys part of its supply chain, think of car maker buying a steel maker so that it owns a big input; or in the other direction when a coffee roaster opening a café. Here it’s a World Tour team making recruitment an in-house matter.

Many teams have had satellite feeder teams with links but increasingly these are under direct control and formally registered as UCI Continental teams, as opposed to the older model of some satellite feeder club or team. DSM started this in 2017. Groupama-FDJ’s provided a recent example, it set up its UCI Continental team in 2019. As a “Conti” team this is a semi-professional structure – separately in France all Conti teams have to pay a salary to their riders and make social security and pension contributions but they can be unsalaried in other countries – that has to follow the UCI rulebook and is overseen by the national federation. Crucially a Continental team can race pro races, it’s eligible for everything outside the World Tour calender.

The professionalisation is going up a level now. This is the vertical aspect, increasingly teams are recruiting neo-pros from their own team rather than recruiting left and right from across the sport. Take Ag2r Citroën which is ending its long association with the Chambéry Cyclisme Formation (CCF) cycling team down the road from its service course. The arrangement’s worked well with a pipeline that’s brought the likes of Romain Bardet and Benoît Cosnefroy, at times CCF has pumped out so many good riders Ag2r couldn’t take them all, think Matteo Jorgenson turning pro with Movistar instead. But the Ag2r-CCF partnership’s ending because the World Tour team is founding its own directly-controlled and owned Continental team for 2024. One reason here is it can sign riders to this squad on a salary, it can let give them a calendar of pro races, and thanks to a crucial UCI rule, it can even draft its own Conti development riders in to the World Tour squad for lower-rated pro races, like Per Strand Hagenes above. 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 *.1 race then the team can have four development riders. So instead of a stagiaire trial it can offer the U23 riders regular days with the pro team throughout the year.

As of the start of this year eight World Tour teams have a Conti development team:

  • Alpecin-Deceuninck, Astana, DSM-Firmenich, EF Education, Groupama-FDJ, Jumbo-Visma, Intermarché, Soudal-Quickstep, up from six the previous year
  • Ag2r Citroën, Arkéa-Samsic, Bahrain, Bora-hansgrohe, Cofidis, Movistar, Jayco, Lidl-Trek, Ineos and UAE are the World Tour teams without.
  • Israel-PremierTech, Lotto-Dstny and Uno-X all have one too.

But the list of teams without is shrinking. As mentioned already Ag2r will have one next year, in fact it’s going for even more vertical integration with a junior team as well, allowing them to sign a promising junior and offer them a pathway into the pro ranks. Also Arkéa is starting its U23 Conti team too. UAE is setting up “UAE Team Emirates Gen Z” as their Conti team too. Lidl-Trek have just announced they’ll have one too. So from 8 this year to 12 in 2024.

Even the teams that won’t have their own development team are still moving closer to it. Axeon-Hagens Bermans has been a conveyor belt of talent in recent years and now it’s it’s effectively becoming the Australian team’s feeder unit. Similarly Bahrain and the Friuli team work together but again cooperation rather than ownership. Cofidis has said they’re looking at it but first wants to consolidate its womens’ and paracycling teams. Bora don’t have an U23 Conti team but they have a junior squad and have signed the likes of Cian Uijtdebroeks direct from this, so a vertical hire. Indeed other teams are looking at junior teams too given the trend to recruit young, we see Ag2r and FDJ active here. Meanwhile Movistar is linked to the Lizarte U-23 team but this serves as the older, more traditional example as Lizarte is neither a Conti team, nor owned and controlled by the Movistar team.

So far so good, we can see why. But a Conti team is expensive, even if run out of a jurisdiction that doesn’t require a salary allowing it to recruit riders hungry enough for subsistence payments and the chance to prove themselves. Riders might race for almost free but the team needs need managers, trainers, mechanics, soigneurs and a fleet of vehicles to fuel and maintain, and while sponsors might be on board, they don’t get much publicity in return. All this and taking a rider on a junior team or into a Conti team only gives the pro team an option on their recruitment. Riders aren’t livestock, so they are free to chose their employer, a promising U23 can turn pro with another team, there’s zero obligation to stay. It’s just that proximity counts, links are established and both sides know what they’re getting so there’s a tendency to stay. However as much as these ties can count, a gigantic contract from a superstar team goes a long way too. Readers will remember BMC shuttered its development team because it saw its best riders recruited elsewhere, like Pavel Sivakov going to Team Sky. This can happen again and if a rider seen as The Next Big Thing appears, it’ll likely happen. But it’s not automatic and as big as some neo-pro contracts are – big six figure deals happen – the real earnings come later once a rider becomes an established contender so better to develop as a pro rather than just take the highest contract, and agents are aware of this as well, their incentives are normally for the long term too.

Also these teams can attract talent, they offer a clear pathway to the pro peloton, supply team-issue kit, a big calendar, some require ongoing education and more but they can’t recruit every promising rider. They might incubate the next Remco Evenepoel or Tadej Pogačar, but not the next Primož Roglič who took up cycling aged 22 too late even for an U23 development squad. Indeed the more vertical recruitment gets, the more unpolished diamonds could be missed out. There are opportunities for clever recruitment too for teams unable to fund a side team.

Just a note to observe how neo-pro recruitment is changing. The majority of World Tour teams have an in-house U23 development team today, even more will have one next year. Feeder teams have long existed but now they’re owned and run by the pro team and by registering at Conti level, they’re pro teams in their own right. Once upon a time a rider “turned pro” but now it feels like more of a process starting in the junior ranks, formal pro teams for U23s and then moving up to a World Tour team. It’s a sign of the increased budgets of World Tour teams as they deem it worth running entire side teams in order to help recruit and retain young talent.

27 thoughts on “Vertical Integration”

    • Think Vine went straight from Zwift to the pro team, Vergallito from Zwift to the development team and now the pro team. Both good signings of course, the team really needs riders capable of results on hilly days from time to time.

    • Vine was riding for a team in the Australian national circuit (NRS) before joining the world tour. Although the nrs is not a big today as it once was it has in the past sent a lot of riders straight into the world tour. The nrs is essentially a semi amateur / pro racing structure which lots of jouniors, some more senior rider and a few returning from Europe riders from the pro tour / pro conti ranks.

    • It’s hard to get the budget of World Tour teams and I imagine there’s some range between €500k-€1.5 million for the year, I’ve €1.5m for one team but that looks like the upper end, it’s got to be hard to spend more. Also you can run one team alongside the other so there can be savings compared to a standalone team.

  1. I think I saw that the UK riders on the FDJ-Conti team also enjoyed support from the Rayner Foundation. If they are really salaried, fed, housed and supported as pros – even though modestly paid – it surprises me that they also need and are provided with Rayner funding.

    Madiot has also made the point for his Conti riders that they are always motivated when completing the WT roster which was not always the case with tired or off-colour riders from the WT squad. The results when Conti riders fill out the WT roster seem to confirm that.

    • They’ve been able to rely on the GB team as an incubator, think Ethan Hayter or Joshua Tarling but for a long time bringing on young riders wasn’t their thing with one or two exceptions eg TGH, they wanted riders at their peak and could pay a premium for this. Things changed a bit when they started hiring more young riders in the last Sky years and now. Development teams and these are long term things…

      …but it seems Ineos have a short term problem right now, having seen several riders leave and not signing any replacements and losing out in their summer bid to get Evenepoel and others.

      • They seemed to be fairly close to Trinity at one time but they’ve missed out on a number of their riders this year. Money shouldn’t be a problem – I see Ratcliffe has pocketed nearly 40mio from F1 this year!

      • I’m a bit surprised by the lack of discussion around the future of Ineos. There are a number of straws in the wind – shrinking budget, departures, a lack of signings, U-turns on contract offers, increasing reliance on ageing riders – that suggest a backer losing interest in the team. They are still talked about as a major power, but we should be asking how much longer they’ll be around.

        • Especially if Ratcliffe’s bid for Manchester United is finally accepted. If he has one very big toy, will he want to play with his old one anymore? That said, Ineos’ budget is less than Man U routinely pay for one player, so money shouldn’t be an issue. To me, Ineos look unfocused and rudderless more than anything. Maybe after the 2024 Olympics they’ll get their mojo back?

  2. I think that is one of the reasons that I am on team Roglic … he didn’t come out of a sausage factory. Groves is a bit interesting as well as he only took up cycling as a remedial strategy for an Achilles tendon ruptured competing in motocross.

    • Simon Gerrans had a similar path into cycling as Groves, for a knee injury.

      Unlike Groves he wasn’t picked up quickly by talent identification programs though. He was spotted because retired Tour de France legend Phil Anderson lived nearby and noticed there was suddenly a new kid riding around and spending lots of money at the local bike shop.

  3. AG2R will start its own devo team because they’ve been “robbed” several riders from their junior team by FDJ conti, like Romain Grégoire…
    A lot of people in France are afraid of this system, saying it would destroy amateur cycling (and some of the biggest amateurs squad are shrinking this year, Sojasun & CCF for example). But if there is more devo and conti teams (FDJ, AG2R, Arkea, CIC -U Nantes who are making a good job too), maybe it’s not so bad ? I really don’t know. Will a system like Vendée U-TotalEnergie survive ?
    Friuli and Bahraïn are not the same structure, but apparently they can sign joint contracts : Kasper Borremans, the Finnish prodigy, signed a six-years contract : 2 years junior at Cannibal B, then 2 years at Friuli, then 2 years at Bahraïn, according to an interview on So it really works in this case like a solid vertical integration… Is it the longest contract in pro cycling right now, until the end of 2028 ?

    • Bahrain calls both Cannibal B Victorious (U19) and Cycling Team Friuli Victorious (U23) its development teams that form “an eco-system”. The two teams have since last year will officially partnered with Bahrain Victorious and its technical partners to develop and utilize the team’s expertise and equipment, giving young talented riders a clear pathway to the WorldTour.”

      Alas, if or when Kasper will race in the colours of Bahrain Victorious, he will probably have switched nationality to Belgian – if for no other reason, then to skip the six months of military service that will await him as a Finnish citizen 🙂

  4. Besides their U19 squad, Bora signed contracts with two CT teams earlier this year (Lotto Kern-Haus, KTM-Vorarlberg) to “park” their juniors for a year or two before pulling them up into their WT squad. As far as I understand, these riders already sign “pre-contracts” ensuring Bora some exclusivity.

    This practice is not new and has already been in action before Bora parking riders at Trinity (Alex Hajek) or Hagens Berman Axeon (Emil Herzog) in their first U23 years – but it has become more structurual now.

  5. One curious thing recently was Michael Valgren being “transferred” to the EF dev team during his recovery from his horrible crash. I’m trying to think of other examples of this, but none spring immediately to mind. I wonder if this might become more common going forward? In American sports, it’s very common for athletes to be called up from an affiliate or farm team if they perform well, or demoted if they are struggling. With only 30 roster slots available for a World Tour team, being able to move riders up or down depending on performance or injury status would seem to make sense. I’m not sure exactly how much latitude teams have (contractually and within UCI regulations) to do this, though.

  6. There was an auditors enquiry into Sky. It appeared they not only got public money to pay for the team’s upcoming talent, they also took the support staff and equipment at will.
    Don’t think they called it vertical integration though.

  7. DSM weren’t the first: Bakala & Lefevere used to have a CT feeder team from 2013 to 2016 already, often with sponsors like Etixx & Klein Constantia (Bakala’s winery) that also sponsored the WT team.

    Many riders like Alaphilippe, Sénéchal, Konrad, Vakoč, Hirt, Schachmann, García Cortina, Narváez, Mas & Cavagna came through that team, but IIRC after 2016 it was abandoned because too many riders left to other (richer) teams before QS could really benefit from them. Alaphilippe, Sénéchal & Cavagna stayed for a long time, of course, but the first two of those were both from the first season.
    I assume the UCI rules were also less beneficial for such a set-up back then…?

    Later they worked with some existing CT/club teams, to then for 2023 to cooperate with one of those to create a new SQS Devo team again.

  8. I think one of the reasons why teams invest in their own recruiting resources or development teams is because it allows them to create some future value for the team. And that, in turn, can be an important argument when talking to potential sponsors, who certainly have some stability on their scorecard in addition to success.
    After all, in addition to bikes and buses, the only value on the books for cycling teams is the riders (and, of course, the staff).

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