If you have noticed a surge in transfer stories over recent weeks it's because the market is well and truly in full swing. With the Spring Classics over and the Giro d'Italia acting as another key marker, teams have two major reference points from which they can ascertain the riders they want to sign, keep, or let go.
Of course, as stipulated in the UCI's big book, riders 'shall not sign for new teams before August 1', but the reality is that deals – in principle and in writing – are already being drawn up.
And it's a rather conservative estimate to suggest that there are over 100 riders on the market when you consider that IAM Cycling (28 riders) will fold and Tinkoff (27) may follow, that WorldTour teams drafted in 37 neo-pros this year, and that the general nature of the transfer system means that a number of contracts typically expire.
However, there isn't one single driving force in the current market. Instead there are a number of overlapping influences; Peter Sagan's future; the Bahrain project; IAM Cycling's demise; Tinkoff's uncertainty; a lack of clarity from the UCI over their 2017 reforms; and increased influence from major bike manufacturers. It all lends itself to creating one of the most complex and tense transfer markets in recent history.
Where will Sagan ride ?
Take the world champion as an example – a personification of the current market in many ways. In one corner we have Oleg Tinkov waving a contract tying him to Sagan for 2017. It's not worth the paper it's written on if the Russian hasn't a squad for the coming year and, as he doesn’t, Sagan is able to explore his options.
Specialized, who are understandably keen on protecting their stake in Sagan, are actively trying to find a team for the world champion. Hence why links with Astana and Etixx – both on Specialized bikes – have grown. If that sounds complicated enough then throw in the fact that Sagan would want to bring with him his brother, another rider, and two staff members that have been with him since his Cannondale days, and you being to understand the stakes. It all adds up to around 5 million Euros a year, reportedly. There have been reports that Tinkov and Sagan have a gentleman's agreement to dissolve the contract but they are not yet confirmed.
Contador a key
It's at the Tour de France where we'll once again see the hotbed of transfer activity.
That's where Alberto Contador, if the stories are to be believed, will decide on his future, although there's a growing understanding that he will look to find a deal in June.
His own team is not yet equipped to launch at the highest level so he must chose between what's already out there. Lampre-Merida appear keen but they must decide on what to do with an out-of-contract Rui Costa, and you can predict that Diego Ulissi will be after an improved contract after his impressive Giro. The Italian team has only signed 14 riders for next season so they do at least have room to manoeuvre.
That's not the same for Contador, however, who, despite his glittering career, can't simply walk into any team he wishes. Firstly, not every team is set up or capable from a structural or financial point of view to house a rider of his calibre. BMC have hitched their wagon to Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen and if anything they're scaling back.
From the other powerhouse teams, Movistar have Quintana, Sky have Froome and if the Bahrain project sign Nibali it's hard – though not impossible – to envisage both riders in the same team. That leaves Katusha, where Joaquim Rodriguez only signed a one-year deal, and Trek-Segafredo.
With added sponsorship and Fabian Cancellara set to retire, the American-registered team have funds to splurge and leaders to recruit. The John Degenkolb links are entirely legitimate and if he can prove that his hand has recovered then he will be a sought-after chip on the table. Bauke Mollema is out of contract to this season, as is Ryder Hesjedal, who only signed a one-year deal. Although not huge money, Yarolsav Popovych has retired to the team car, Frank Schleck is out of contract, and so too are Stijn Devolder and Peter Stetina.
Should Giant-Alpein lose or choose not to re-sign Degenkolb they will be on the look-out for a new sprinter-come-Classics rider. They are a rare breed and Giant typically sign riders of a certain disposition. With Sep Vanmarcke also in play, he becomes a candidate if terms cannot be agreed at LottoNL-Jumbo.
In Belgium Lotto Soudal have already completed most of their business, tying down Andre Greipel and a number of young riders with contract extensions. Etixx-QuickStep have a number of high profile riders signed on long-term deals but Tony Martin and Tom Boonen are both out of contract at the end of the season. The latter has been linked to Lotto Soudal, with bike manufacturer Ridley huge admirers of the veteran Classics star. Lotto Soudal would struggle to finance the move under their current budget but reports in Belgium of a possible switch are not entirely far fetched.
The current pattern of transfer moves and speculation is that teams will first recruit their marquee signings – before the Tour de France if they can – and then wait for the market to become even more saturated with bargains before picking off riders in the last few months of the season.
Manufactures on the move
Specialized, with their three current WorldTour squads, are not the only bike brand making moves. Merida are keen on recruiting a stage race leader, a sprinter and a Classics rider at Lampre, while they've also sat down with a representative from the Bahrain project, Milan Erzen. Erzen, a former rider from Slovenia, has been tasked by the Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa to negotiate on his behalf. Erzen already has close ties with Lampre having worked on contracts for Slovenian riders on the team. As reported by Cyclingnews earlier this week, Argon 18 are also in the running to work with the new team, while Bianchi have also been linked.
We've already seen some developments with riders re-signing at their respective teams. Geraint Thomas at Sky, van Garderen and Greg Van Avermaet at BMC Racing, and Greipel at Lotto-Soudal. The Van Avermaet re-sign casts doubt on Philippe Gilbert's future. He's been linked to Astana by at least two sources we've spoken to.
Others out of contract: Andrew Talansky, Moreno Moser (Cannondale), Taylor Phinney, Rohan Dennis, Ben Hermans, Peter Velits (BMC), Michael Matthews, Simon and Adam Yates, Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEdge), Wout Poels, Sergio Heano, Nicolas Roche (Team Sky), Tom Boonen, Gianni Meersman, Maxime Bouet, Martin Velits (Etixx-QuickStep), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff), Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), Thibaut Pinot, William Bonnet (FDJ), Lars Boom (Astana), Pim Ligthart (Lotto Soudal), Johan Vansummeren, (AG2R-La Mondiale), Matthew Goss (ONE Pro Cycling), everyone at IAM Cycling.