In a transfer market dictated by agents as much as results and budgets, Patrick Lefevere finds himself at the centre of several of the key potential transfer sagas of the summer.
Lefevere’s position as transfer kingpin isn’t just born from chance, however, and the Etixx-QuickStep manager is keeping is cards close to his chest as he negotiations with Mark Cavendish, Rigoberto Uran, Tom Boonen and Michał Kwiatkowski about renewing their contracts. The world champion is rumoured to have already signed for Team Sky, although he has denied this to his teammates, while Lefevere has been linked with a number of riders, including Mikel Landa, Richie Porte and Ryder Hesjedal.
I’m more or less where I want to be in terms of my plans,” Lefevere told Cyclingnews from his office in Belgium.
“However, I have the impression, and I don’t think that I’m alone, that agents are calling me a lot and that means the market isn’t moving that quickly. I don’t think many teams are signing riders at the moment. Normally we’re paying what the market asks so if you saw in the past when Sky came into cycling the prices went up, but now the market is standing still.”
There are a number of factors at play within the current market. Peter Sagan’s reported salary of 4 million Euro is seen as a benchmark by many of his rivals, and although the fee is huge, athletes and more importantly their agents, are using the example to drive up their prices.
Another factor is that no new WorldTour team is – at this stage – coming onto the scene for 2016, and team are looking to reduce roster size for 2017 if the UCI’s new regulations comes into place. On top of that BMC are reportedly only able to offer one-year deals, a sticking point when it comes to attracting riders to one of the best payers in the peloton. And finally, the big four of Froome, Nibali, Contador and Quintana are all under contract for next year, meaning that bargains are being sought with the likes of Porte, Ryder Hesjedal, Dan Martin and man of the moment Mikel Landa.
“If I listen to the agents Dave Brailford is about to sign 35 riders because everyone I speak to says that they have an offer from Team Sky,” says Lefevere.
“Brailford could make three or four teams from the speculation that’s going around now but right now I’m sitting in my seat and I’m confident.”
One rider that Lefevere may have already lost to Brailsford is the current world champion Kwiatkowski. Lefevere has around 20 riders signed for next year but the Pole isn’t one of them and Gazzetta claimed that the rider has already signed a deal with Team Sky for next year.
Lefevere says that he is still talking to the rider but admits he has no certainty as to whether the speculation linking his rider to Team Sky is true.
“I don’t know if he’s signed for them. We’re still speaking but I don’t know the latest. The riders talk to you but then they ask you to talk to the agent. The importance of the agent is greater, sometimes, than I wish. Even if it’s true that he’s signed for Team Sky he won’t say it because you can’t confirm transfers until August but of course by August most of the best riders are gone. “
Lefevere has confirmed that he did not offer Kwiatkowski a new deal, however, after last year’s world title win.
“I didn’t offer him a new team after Worlds and I’ll tell you why. You agree a salary and bonus. If you have contract with a bonus for a Worlds or a Tour de France why should you give a new contract?”
“I don’t know if he’ll stay. He’s said he wants to stay, his agents plays other games but that’s normal because that’s his role but I don’t know what will happen yet.”
Another piece of the puzzle is the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish. The British rider’s negotiating position has improved greatly over the last few months. Rigoberto Uran had a poor Giro, and in theory this will affect his price and free up more money for Cavendish; the sprinter’s main rival Marcel Kittel his having his worst season yet; and, most importantly, Cavendish is regularly winning.
The rider initially hoped for a three-year deal but Lefevere won't countenance anything longer than a two-year extension. The crux of the discussion centres around the financials, however, but Cavendish is well aware that few teams are able to offer him the support he currently receives at Etixx. Maybe only Team Sky could equate in terms of salary and a possible leadout but a return to the team Cavendish left at the end of 2012 seems unlikely at this point.
Lefevere is adamant, however, that decision will be struck during the Tour de France.
“I can’t sign Mark Cavendish before the Tour, even if he’s nervous but the situation is what it is. Everyone wants a guarantee in April but I have to justify my budget with the board. I don’t think it’s healthy to sign an entire team by June because there might be other opportunities and you need to save a bit of room,” Lefevere tells Cyclingnews.
“You have Mark who wins a lot of races but the Tour de France gives more than 60 per cent of a rider’s publicity and value. So if he can win at he Tour then it’s a totally different discussion. Mark is intelligent enough to understand this. It’s that I want to put pressure on him, that’s not what I want, but everyone has to justify their salary, myself included. So I’ll make a decision during the Tour de France. Everyone likes him and he likes us but we’re all professionals and we’re talking about money and budgets. If there’s a will I think there’s way but I have to justify it all to the owners.”
If Cavendish’s stock is rising then the opposite can be said of Uran. The Colombian failed to challenge at the Giro d’Italia and his chances of riding the Tour de France are in the balance as he recovers from illness. Lefevere is keen on having a GC contender in the team and despite this year’s Giro, Uran remains a consistent performer.
“Rigoberto was a bit ill in the Giro. He didn’t perform in the manner that he or I expected but we’ll see. First we need to decide his programme and see if he’ll do the Tour. Then we’ll look at his future. I don’t know if he stays. It’s not just about two parties, nowadays it’s about three parties. There’s always the agent who wants a certain direction,” he says.
Uran has the same agent, Giuseppe Acquadro, as Mikel Landa, this year’s Giro sensation, and a rider that has been linked with a number of WorldTour teams. The Spaniard is out of contract at Astana this year and with Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali leading the line, may look for pastures new.
“You can give thirty other names. There’s Hesjedal, there’s Dan Martin, there’s Porte, Izaguirre, Landa, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Monfort, I can go on and on,” Lefevere says when asked about potential targets.
The perfect target, he says, is “the guy who isn’t cheap but you have to factor in the market, the rider’s ambition, age and performance. I look for a good mix but I don’t look for the most expensive because how many can win the Tour de France? Three or four so if you don’t have one of them you need a good outsider.”
When asked about Richie Porte, Lefevere said: “Porte is an interesting rider. He performance right the way from the start of the season up until the Giro. Unfortunately he then has a lot of bad luck but of course in the next few weeks I have some riders in the balance and we’ll see what we can do.”
Whether or not Lefevere can keep all of his main stars remains to be seen but there’s no doubt that the canny team boss will have his finger on the pulse when it comes to making the right moves.
“It all depends on the prices. Everything is possible if everyone is reasonable. I think that the press is more nervous than I am. I believe my intuition so if I think today is the right time to close a contract we’ll do it. I’ve been in this business for long enough to know and I’m 98 per cent right.”
What does his intuition tell him about Kwiatkowski and the chances of the Pole staying at the team? “That I will keep for myself.”