The battle for contracts in the COVID market

CIUDADRODRIGO SPAIN NOVEMBER 06 Start Omar Fraile Matarranz of Spain and Astana Pro Team Carlos Verona Quintanilla of Spain and Movistar Team Alexander Edmondson of Australia and Team Mitchelton Scott Salamanca City Peloton Bridge Landscape during the 75th Tour of Spain 2020 Stage 16 a 162km stage from Salamanca to Ciudad Rodrigo lavuelta LaVuelta20 La Vuelta on November 06 2020 in Ciudad Rodrigo Spain Photo by David RamosGetty Images
Dozens of riders in the Vuelta a España peloton were fighting for 2021 contracts (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

At the end of a season, the sight of riders competing for chances to sign contracts and stay in cycling's top division – the WorldTour – is not a new phenomenon, but 2020 has seen the spectacle amped up even beyond the usual churn of teams and sponsors.

It has been a season like no other, not just disrupted but fully upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. In CCC, a WorldTour team is disappearing due to financial circumstances brought about by the effects of the virus on the world economy, while uncertainty and budget cuts around the rest of the peloton have meant dozens of riders fighting over a decreasing number of places in this, the COVID market.

Those concerns won't worry the stars who have secured contracts for future seasons and those riders who have a palmarès of results to point towards. However, for those who don't have a slew of top top-level results or have simply endured a down year, the final weeks and months of the year have been fraught as riders constantly check in with agents over their future prospects.

Swiss rider Silvan Dillier – a Giro stage winner in 2017 and Paris-Roubaix runner-up the next year – recently signed a deal with Mathieu van der Poel's Alpecin-Fenix team, dropping down a division after seven seasons in the World Tour with BMC and, most recently, AG2R La Mondiale.

He admits his contract situation caused him a few sleepless nights, especially given the early part of his campaign saw him forced to quarantine after a positive COVID-19 test just before Strade Bianche.

"The season was very short, so you only have so many opportunities. If you miss one race, then it is gone. You have to always think about the next day and being the best you can.

"It's mentally and physically harder - you try and get a little bit more out of your performance. There are no races which you can use as training for other races.

"There was one time when my manager and the team were talking but I had the feeling I needed something new, a different environment so I didn't have a big interest in July or August to stay at the team. 

"It looked like I was going to find something else pretty easy but that became more difficult – sponsors who were supposed to get on board with other teams didn't and the weeks just kept passing by and all of a sudden it was the end of the season and I had nothing in my hands.

"There were plenty of nights when I woke up and it was impossible to get back to sleep. But when the last race was done, I couldn't have any more influence on it other than trusting in my manager.

"In the end though, if you stress too much then you do more damage to yourself."

Luxembourger Jempy Drucker has kept his place in the World Tour peloton, signing a one-year deal with Cofidis where he'll help sprinter Ellia Viviani.

The 34-year-old says he was surprised not to stay at Bora-Hansgrohe, but the team told him he was too old.

"They told me to be happy with my performance but that I was simply too old. For me I couldn't accept this, I respect their choice, but I have difficulty accepting it," he said.

"You can see a there's a new trend with the young kids rocking the stage, but as long as I am still performing well, I think age is only a number. And there are many examples to prove this."

Before his move to Bora, Drucker had carved out some good results in one-day races, including a win at the 2015 RideLondon-Surrey Classic.

But a bad injury sustained at last year's Dwars door Vlaanderen, coupled with the postponement of the Flemish classics until October this season proved to be a disaster for the former Luxembourg TT champion.

He said: "It was so difficult to show myself. Usually, we would talk to teams after the Flemish Classics, but they weren't until October this year and my race programme after lockdown wasn't the best for me.

"It was pretty stressful, knowing you are out of contract and that you can't renew with the team, teams are folding, sponsors are cutting their budgets etc. 

"I have a family at home, bills to pay every month, just like every other person, so it wasn't easy to live with that feeling of what is going on next year – will I still be a pro rider, or will I have to look for a job?"

Drucker says he used the uncertainty as added motivation, pushing himself that little bit further in races knowing he had to do all he could for his family.

"I always say, if you know and focus yourself with the chapter after cycling you are already with one foot into retirement so I tried to focus on what's going on now and left the other worries for when it's time for it. That time isn't now, luckily," he said.

Fighting for results at the Vuelta

ALTODEMONCALVILLO SPAIN OCTOBER 28 Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg of South Africa and NTT Pro Cycling Team during the 75th Tour of Spain 2020 Stage 8 a 164km stage from Logroo to Alto de Moncalvillo 1490m lavuelta LaVuelta20 on October 28 2020 in Alto de Moncalvillo Spain Photo by David RamosGetty Images

Reinardt Janse van Rensburg is among those riders uncertain of their future at the moment (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

As well as the demise of Team CCC, the uncertainty surrounding the future of the NTT team meant places on teams became a premium as the season wore on.

Team boss Doug Ryder has since resolved the sponsorship issue and Swiss clothing firm Assos have stepped in and the team will become Qhubeka Assos for the 2021 season.

South African sprinter Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, who has spent the majority of his career with Ryder's team, is out of contract at the end of this season and, despite assurances from the team, a new deal has yet to be offered.

The 31-year-old says he was quite relaxed about his chances of a new deal in the early part of the season, but the stress has increased as the clock ticked away.

"Options did start to disappear for a lot of guys because of the pandemic," he said. "Team budgets got cut, riders salaries got cut and even those getting contract offers now are lucky to get half of their previous contract if you haven't had any major wins in the past couple of years.

"I heard of some guys elsewhere getting offered less than a quarter of their old deals."

Van Rensburg, who is studying management accountancy in his spare time as part of his post-racing plan, says one of the knock-on effects of the worry over contracts was that riders who would have perhaps been able to relax during the season-closing Vuelta a España weren't able to.

"It's been very stressful. You have to get results to get noticed and then other teams will be interested in you, so you've always got that extra stress and pressure.

"But at the end of the day, you can only worry about the things you can control, not about anything else. That's been my philosophy – focus on the things I can do and hopefully, other things work out.

"I was trying to get as many results as I could but in the peloton, you could feel the added stress because it wasn't just NTT but also the CCC guys. There were close to 100 guys in the peloton that were looking for contracts which is scary.

"A lot of guys were stressed in the Vuelta and the motivation was still high for them to do something. At normal times, towards the end of the season, motivation starts to wane a bit and guys get really tired, but we didn't see that this year.

Agent Gary McQuaid represents a number of top-level riders including Mitchelton-Scott's Adam Yates – who is moving to Ineos Grenadiers in the close season – Alex Dowsett of Israel Start-Up Nation and Giro runner-up Jai Hindley of Team Sunweb. 

He says even though the UCI have lifted the rules on maximum team sizes to 32, it does not automatically mean that those extra spots on teams will be filled.

"Thinking bigger picture as an agent we must understand it's probable that with the likes of Lotto Soudal, Bora-Hansgrohe, Deceuninck-QuickStep, Movistar etc are all simply companies whose numbers will be down in 2020," he said. 

"So whilst an agent might be selling a rider on 250k salary in 2020 and said rider will accept even UCI min wage for 2021, for his chance – teams do not seem to be able to make that happen."

McQuaid, whose American rider Will Barta was snapped up by EF Pro Cycling this week following the collapse of CCC, thinks some riders might be forced to wait until January to see if there are any contracts available then. The experienced negotiator is still expecting a tough 2021.

"I don't see next year being too healthy either re: contracts and the demand for spaces on teams," he said.

"I think overall team budgets will again be down and if we have a truncated season or a drastically effected season due to COVID then that could be a pretty grim situation again. 

"Ideally things improve and we have a full calendar, from February to October, with no gaps in racing and it's back to business, but all that is out of all our control so you just do what you can do your side."

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Andrew Greaves is the head of journalism at News Associates. Find him on Twitter here.