When is a contract not a contract? Essentially, when all relevant parties haven't signed it. Such simplicity isn’t part of the situation involving Ivan Sosa, Trek-Segafredo and the various individuals who claim to represent the rider. It's a story of rider-agent wars, contract buy-outs, development fees, broken relationships, and at the centre of it is how one of the most talented young riders has become the rope in a tug-of-war that threatens the start of his WorldTour career.
Luca Guercilena paces back and forth across the lobby at the Mapei Centre on a brisk mid-April morning in Castellanza, northwest of Milan. The Trek-Segafredo general manager shouldn't be nervous. After all, he used to work at the elite training venue, so knows each corridor, closet and corner like the back of his hand. But today is special because after months of scouting, introductions and preliminary talks, Ivan Sosa is in town for tests and it's up to Guercilena, as much as it is Sosa, to impress.
The 21-year-old had crashed hard and failed to finish the Tour of the Alps but his third places during the opening two stages, a day as race leader and his previous results stringing back to early 2015 all indicate that the climber is a rare find - think Egan Bernal but without Team Sky having already signed him. Think Egan Bernal but a year younger. Think Egan Bernal but at a fraction of the cost.
Finally, Sosa arrives, accompanied by Maurizio Fondriest, one of the three people who have helped develop and manage him since he first came to Europe in 2016. Sosa is quiet and polite, and Guercilena can tell from the way the rider watches and listens that he’s taking it all in. They talk in Spanish, the physical and medical tests run smoothly and, even though Sosa is wearing the Androni Giocattoli team kit, Guercilena believes that he is doing enough to win over the climber. They make it as far as talking about potential race programmes for 2019. Guercilena hopes to have signed the next great Colombian climber.
In truth, however, Guercilena didn’t discover this diamond. Paolo Alberati, a known talent-scout and official rider-agent since 2012, did the initial work after a recommendation from Andrea Bianco – an Italian living in Colombia with a background in mountain biking, a UCI race official with a track record that includes discovering Bernal. Alberati played an early role in Bernal’s career development in Europe and hopes to help Sosa follow in Bernal’s path.
Alberati helped bring Sosa to Europe in 2016 after he caught Bianco’s attention with fourth overall and victory on the queen stage of the Vuelta del Porvenir junior stage race. Alberati convinced the Tuscan Maltinti under-23 team to take Sosa for the 2016 season, but the team would only pay basic expenses. As a result, Alberati personally paid for Sosa’s flight to Italy, aged just 19, and it was his first international travel.
Despite his young age and 52kg build, Sosa quickly showed his talent and finished second on an uphill finish in the spring, after celebrating too early.
Alberati was impressed and took Sosa under his wing, coaching him and even invited him to his home on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily when he became homesick. Sosa became one of the family and set new record times on the different roads to the summit of Mount Etna. In his first race back with Maltinti, Sosa won the Schio-Ossario race.
Alberati wanted to help Sosa step up to the professional ranks, and he, understandably, wanted to profit for his work by earning a percentage of Sosa's future professional contract.
Under UCI rules, rider-agent contracts can last a maximum of two years, but the same UCI rules allow riders to sign representation contracts with lawyers. Alberati works with Italian lawyer Marco Angelini and so Sosa agreed to sign a 2+2 contract that is set to end in 2019. It was designed to cover Sosa’s time as an under-23 rider and the early years of his professional career.
Androni Giocattoli team manager Gianni Savio had already noticed Sosa’s ability and was quick to sign him for the 2017 season before he rode the 2016 Tour de l’Avenir with the Colombian national team. Sosa confirmed his promise by helping Bernal finish fourth overall.
Just as he had done with Bernal, when signing him in 2016, Savio insisted on a clause in Sosa’s contract that allowed him to leave Androni Giocattoli before the end of his contract should an important offer arrive from a WorldTour team before June 30, 2018. Savio earned a fee when he agreed to let Bernal end his contract and join Team Sky, and he was keen to repeat the trick with Sosa.
Sosa won his first professional race at the 2018 Vuelta al Tachira and was sixth overall at the Colombia Oro e Paz, won by Bernal. He impressed on the climbs at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali and even took the race lead at the Tour of the Alps, after finishing ahead of Chris Froome on the mountain finish to Alpe di Pampeago. It was more than enough to capture the interest of several WorldTour teams, and that is what led to the tests with Trek-Segafredo at the Mapei Centre.
Team Sky also showed interest, but according to Alberati and Fondriest, Sosa was keen to make his own path in the professional ranks, and he wanted to avoid becoming Bernal’s younger teammate and domestique.
Trek-Segafredo's Guercilena made the best offer, both in economic and development terms, and when Savio decided not to match the offer, he was happy to let Sosa leave in exchange for another ‘development fee’, which would further feather his pension. In June, Trek-Segafredo paid Savio his cut – which according to Trek-Segafredo was a fee of €120,000, and the WorldTour team were sure they had one of the most promising Colombian riders of his generation on their roster. They even boosted Sosa’s contract after he won the Vuelta a Burgos in early August.
Although the deal seemed complete at the time, Sosa still hadn't signed the contract with Trek-Segafredo.
In hindsight, Trek-Segafredo should have copied team Bahrain-Merida’s strategy. In 2016, they bought Sonny Colbrelli out of his deal at Bardiani-CSF. Bahrain-Merida stated that their buyout of the rider was part of the same documentation as for his new WorldTour contract. No WorldTour contract, no buyout. Call it naive or bad judgement, or both, but Guercilena believed that he had done enough, and that Alberati, Fondriest and the Italian lawyer Marco Angelini were Sosa’s legal representatives.
Trek-Segafredo sent a 25-page contract to Sosa and his agents on August 24, and according to Alberati, who showed it to Sosa at the start of the Tour de l’Avenir, said Sosa was "very happy" with the with the proposed terms. A Spanish version was requested by Alberati, more for Sosa’s benefit, and Trek-Segafredo duly agreed to file across a new copy within three days.
On August 27, during the Tour de l’Avenir, Sosa recorded a video that is still visible on the Colombian Cycling Federation's Facebook page expressing his excitement at joining Trek-Segafredo. He created this video without having signed his contract - he hadn’t even received the Spanish version, yet – and Trek-Segafredo had not prompted or expressed any desire for Sosa to make the video. Sosa did not seem to be aware that even a verbal message could be considered a legally-binding agreement to the contract.
On the same day, Trek-Segafredo publicly announced Sosa would join the team for 2019, even though Sosa had still not signed his contract. A trip to the US for a Trek bike fit, and visit to Trek’s headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin, were planned and Sosa applied for a visa to visit the US.
The sudden change
Everything changed as summer turned to autumn and Sosa spent time at his Italian base near Turin training for the Road World Championships in Innsbruck. Sosa had won a stage and finished sixth overall at the Tour de l’Avenir but the team time trial and the shortening of the queen stage over the Col de l’Iseran had limited his chances of overall victory.
Alberati and Sosa spoke on Monday, September 3 about a training plan to help him prepare for the under-23 road race at the World Championships. Then suddenly everything changed at the end of the week.
In steps Giuseppe Acquadro, an agent who has represented some of the most prominent riders, including Nairo Quintana, Michal Kwiatkowski and of course Bernal. Acquadro has his fingers in several teams’ pies, but he primarily works with Team Sky, Movistar and Astana. There are a few exceptions, but it’s telling that in several years at Trek-Segafredo, Guercilena had not signed a single one of Acquadro's riders. Acquadro also disputes that Sosa ever saw a contract from Trek, and that only the rider's previous representatives saw a version.
On Friday, September 7, Acquadro's legal representative sent a letter to Angelini claiming that the rider-agent contract with Sosa had ended. In addition, the letter informed that Sosa would not sign the contract with Trek-Segafredo, which Fondriest, Alberati and Angelini had previously negotiated for him.
The trio were stunned by the news and travelled to Turin to see Sosa on Tuesday, September 11. They claim that Sosa told them that Acquadro had found a team willing to pay €100,000 more than the Trek-Segafredo offer. Sosa believed Acquadro and suggested that his agreement with Fondriest, Alberati and Angelini was no longer valid. The support Alberati and Fondriest had shown toward Sosa in the previous two years seemed to count for nothing compared to the temptation of a bigger contract offer.
Fondriest, Alberati and Angelini were stunned by Sosa’s sudden change in behaviour and began to prepare for a legal battle. They believed their four-year agreement with Sosa was solid and they have accused Acquadro of acting improperly as a rider-agent by representing Sosa and offering him to teams during the Vuelta a España.
Acquadro has denied any wrongdoing, claiming that Sosa’s agreement with Fondriest, Alberati and Angelini had ended due to the two-year limitation of the UCI rules. Fondriest, Alberati and Angelini believe the agreement was valid because it was signed by Angelini, who is an Italian lawyer, and so does not fall under UCI rider-agent rules.
On September 17, Sosa informed Fondriest, Alberati and Angelini that he had, as was his right, unilaterally ended his agreement with them.
Fondriest, Alberati and Angelini issued a lengthy memorandum on September 21, giving their version of events. They also contacted the UCI legal office and have supplied their contracts and other documentation. A UCI Arbitration Panel is due to hear the case in the coming weeks.
On Monday, October 1, after Worlds, Guercilena had scheduled a call with Acquadro to talk about Sosa and to perhaps finalise a deal. The Trek-Segafredo boss was quietly confident that after proposing what he told Cyclingnews was an 'upgraded' contract offer, Sosa would be added to his roster.
However, Acquadro never called. He never returned Guercilena’s messages and as we write this the US-registered WorldTour team are no closer to signing Sosa than they were on August 24 when they first sent the rider a contract in English via Fondriest, Alberati and Angelini.
Indeed, they may even be further away from signing Sosa, given the latest reports. Acquadro admitted to Cyclingnews on Wednesday that he had been talking to several teams and that Trek-Segafredo and Team Sky – the latter heavily linked to Sosa since September – were just two teams on his list of potentials for the Colombian.
"We’ve not yet decided. There are other teams. We’re in talks, and I hope it’s agreed before Lombardia," Acquadro told Cyclingnews.
Where that leaves Trek-Segafredo remains to be seen. When Cyclingnews spoke to Guercilena it was clear that the Italian was not impressed with the situation. All he would say was:
"Everyone does their job, and I'm sure that everyone thinks that they're doing it the best way possible. I'm not here to judge that."
If Sosa backpedals and signs with the American team on his ‘upgraded’ contract, then this saga will be forgotten come the first races of 2019. It won’t be an ideal start to the young Colombian’s WorldTour career, but events will surely be quickly forgotten if success soon follows.
If Sosa heads to Team Sky, the ramifications could be huge. Trek-Segafredo have paid a significant fee to Savio to secure Sosa’s release from Androni Giocattoli, and would sure want it back.
In theory, if Sosa's contract with Trek-Segafredo is ruled invalid, then Savio’s release clause that ended on June 30 could also be invalid, meaning Sosa may have to respect his original contract with Androni Giocattoli, apparently worth just €45,000 for 2019, or pay another fee to Savio to get out of the contract.
Sosa and Acquadro, are now locked in a legal battle against Fondriest, Alberati and Angelini that could last weeks, even months and cast a shadow over Sosa’s future. Fondriest, Alberati and Angelini are not only interested in securing the fee for negotiating Sosa's contract with Trek-Segafredo. The case could force the UCI to improve its rider-agent rules dramatically.
Several other rider agents have suggested to Cyclingnews that Acquadro has 'gone too far this time', and that he simply believes that he has done nothing wrong. He has successfully negotiated Bernal’s new five-year contract with Team Sky and Dave Brailsford and continues to be one of the most powerful rider-agents in the sport due to his monopoly-grip on the Colombian riders and their rich contracts spread across the WorldTour peloton.