Unlike the madness of football's transfer window, it's rare in professional cycling for riders to break their contracts and switch teams. Yet Quick-Step Floors manager Patrick Lefevere has now picked up two riders in three years thanks to early exits from their teams.
The first was Marcel Kittel, who joined the Belgian team in 2016 after a disastrous 2015 season with Giant-Alpecin, and the German is central to the puzzle that now sees Elia Viviani jump ship and join Quick-Step Floors with a year left on his Team Sky contract.
Rumours of Kittel's departure from the Belgian team had surfaced even before he won five stages at the Tour de France, and Katusha-Alpecin, with two German sponsors in Alpecin and Canyon and an unhappy Alexander Kristoff, was the name on most people's lips.
The move was confirmed in early August and even Kittel acknowledged that one factor was the rise of Fernando Gaviria at Quick-Step Floors, the Colombian prodigy who won four stages at this year's Giro d'Italia in his first Grand Tour and who is being lined up for a Tour de France debut in 2018.
Unable to guarantee Kittel sprint leadership at the Tour, and unable to continue paying him the same modest sum that made him such a bargain in the first place, Lefevere knew he faced losing the 29-year-old, and was informed in person in early August.
The door was open for a secondary sprinter at Quick-Step Floors, who could alternate with Gaviria.
Lefevere insists he wasn't actively shopping around before Kittel's departure was confirmed, but the Viviani idea had already been floated by the Italian's agent, Giovanni Lombardi.
"After the Tour de France, Lombardi contacted me and asked if Marcel was leaving, and I said, 'probably, yes'," Lefevere explained to Cyclingnews.
"He said, 'if he's leaving the team, are you interested in Viviani?' I said, 'of course'. Three days after Lombardi called me, Kittel confirmed to me that he was leaving."
It wasn't quite as simple as that, however. It is understood that first of all Quick-Step Floors made an approach for Bryan Coquard, the young French sprinter who had fallen out with the Direct Energie team.
Lefevere, understandably, denies that Coquard – and not Viviani – was his first choice, but the Frenchman himself has explained that it was he who turned down a move, on the grounds that he didn't want to play second fiddle to Gaviria and miss out on the Tour.
More from our transfer mechanics series
- Marcel Kittel to Katusha-Alpecin
- Alberto Contador into retirement
- Warren Barguil to Fortuneo-Oscaro
- Ian Boswell to Katusha-Alpecin
'A train I couldn't miss'
Whether first or second choice, how did Quick-Step Floors end up with a rider who wasn't supposed to be on the market?
Viviani's career has come on considerably since he joined Team Sky from Cannondale in 2015, but as his own results have improved he has grown frustrated at the relative lack of support and opportunity in a team so heavily weighted towards the general classification.
The clincher was his omission from this year's Giro d'Italia – particularly stinging for an Italian in centenary edition of the corsa rosa. Viviani was similarly absent from Team Sky's plans for the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, both won by Chris Froome. He was also overlooked for a slot in the cobbled Classics squad.
"It's not a problem of the Giro, but if you look ahead to the chances I have in the next year, I don't know if I can do a Grand Tour, and this is the main point," Viviani told Cyclingnews at the recent Tour of Britain.
"I don't want to do the second programme – they're important races, yes, but I want to do a Grand Tour. I don't want to do any more years without a Grand Tour."
Despite insisting he would see out his contract with Team Sky, Viviani was keen to leave, and he was close to reaching an agreement with UAE Team Emirates, with reports suggesting he might even make the move before the end of the 2017 season in order to ride the Vuelta.
When he found out Quick-Step Floors were interested, there was little debate in his own mind. It seemed like the right move. Not only will he be able to ride the Giro d'Italia in 2018, he'll be flanked there and elsewhere by a proper support network – compatriot Fabio Sabatini has opted to stay rather than follow Kittel to Katusha – in a team that is geared more towards stage and one-day wins than GC.
"If another team approached me, then maybe I'd have stayed at Team Sky, because it's one of best teams in the world, but the chance to go to Quick-Step Floors, it's too big to lose," Viviani said.
"They have a mentality for the sprinters and at this moment in time my ambition is going up. I think it's a good moment to take this train. Maybe it's also the time I can't afford to miss this train, because I'm 28 and maybe I don't have any more chances like that."
Team Sky wanted David de la Cruz
Team Sky, Viviani says, were "completely understanding". The Italian was well liked within the team, and a handy source of victories, but hardly central to their overarching ambitions.
"We decided all together that it was time to split our road," says Viviani. "I have spent really amazing three years at Sky - you can see from last month, with the best results of my career.
"With Dave [Brailsford], I have a lot of respect for him, he really believed in me. There were no arguments or hard feelings. It's all about my ambition, the ambition of the team, and this big chance to move to Quick-Step."
Team Sky weren't going to stand in the way, but they did use the situation as leverage in a swoop for Quick-Step Floors' Spanish climber David de la Cruz.
"I got a message from Lombardi, saying, 'Viviani can go but Team Sky want De la Cruz,'" recalls Lefevere.
"I knew De la Cruz wanted to leave. He wanted more money, and there were teams interested. So in my head I knew he was going to go anyway, and it happened quite at the last minute for me, so it didn't make the difference anymore. I sent a text to Dave Brailsford asking if he was happy with the switch, and he said yes.
"So I replied to Lombardi saying, 'Fine, deal done.'"
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