The North American peloton* will be undergoing some major changes after the 2008 season. The potential loss of two big teams could produce a sea change of sorts, flooding the market with top talent. Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski gives a 'State of the Peloton' report, including who is staying, who could be going and who might be growing because of it. In part one of this three-part feature, he delves into the players with the most to gain and lose. Check back for part two, the stayers, and part three the up and comers.
Unlike the European peloton, which recently saw teams sign new title sponsors like Columbia and Saxo Bank, the North American peloton is seeing the opposite occur. Some call it a change, others a market correction – but losing the teams sponsored by Toyota and Health Net, along with the already defunct Symmetrics team, would cause a tidal wave of talent to wash over the domestic peloton in a way not seen in recent years.
Notice the word 'teams' above and not 'sponsors' – both of the management companies that actually own the 'teams' are actively looking for replacement sponsors. However, with the US economy clinging onto the bottom of the toilet bowl the task is rather uphill.
Toyota-United's boss Sean Tucker announced the other week that he was releasing his riders from their contracts early to seek other employment for 2009. The statement said the search for a new title sponsor would go on, but clearly not a good sign. Still, Tucker told Cyclingnews the search continues.
"We are working hard and trying to contact some new people as well. We have two very interested parties but there is nothing more we can do with them. They are just waiting to get their budget numbers and then have to decide their marketing budget from that. So we are sitting on our hands with those two folks. "
While he did release his riders from their contracts, he said many of them want to stick it out. Due to UCI deadlines, and likely due to budgets as well, the team will have to remain Continental instead of making the planned jump to Pro Continental, but even that deadline has moved up this year to make things more stressful.
"We have up until December 10, but we'll have to be a continental team at this point. And that date was moved up too. To go Pro Continental there are minimum salaries. Sure a lot of our guys were already there, but to have everyone at about $40,000 and then some are specialists and have to be contractors, so we have to pay extra to make it about $60,000."
As for his educated guess on the outcome, Tucker gives himself even odds. "In 2005, when I started the team, I called 535 companies that year. And I did that with a lot of research, not just opening up the phone book. We got one company to write a check. I would say today we have called 120 companies. But all we need is one, so I would say 50/50."