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Ever wonder why a professional cyclist might need an agent or manager? Professional cycling is a business and results don’t necessarily translate into contracts and money. And the last thing a pro cyclist wants to do is get involved in the business side of the sport. In this post Jono Lovelock explores an agent’s role and the various situations that come up where they could save a pro cyclist’s career.
“Most guys I deal with don’t actually know what a rider agent does or should be doing and I actually think it’s a bit of our sport that’s cloaked in a bit of mystery” – Wayne Evans
I am a rider. I have an old fashioned belief that if you get the results, the rest will follow. You need to nail your training, your diet, your recovery, your tactics and your psychology. You show up, you get results; you’ll get a fair deal.
Yes I am a rider. And yes I am naïve.
You can get the results. But you need to be an entity. You need to be known. You need to be seen.
Why do you need an agent?
Imagine things from the other side of the fence. You are now managing a World Tour team. You need to consider your budget, your sponsors, your staff, your service course and so on. You’ve been told you need to change the roster because Voigt wants to ride San Luis instead of Down Under. You just found out that Schleck was spotted wearing non team issue sunglasses. Your race food hasn’t arrived in Adelaide and the team has nothing to race on. You are simply not focussed on what a teenager is doing in an obscure race in Australia, or America, or even France. You have talent scouts, but even they cannot see everything or everyone.
This is where a rider agent is essential. The agent serves to bring the rider to the teams; to get them known and to get them seen. Wayne Evans of Lion Sports Management represents many young Australian riders such as Cameron and Travis Meyer. He secures contracts for his riders by informing teams on a monthly basis of the progression of each of his athletes. Without making yourself known first, your ability to secure a contract is severely hindered. He even had a situation last year where he was talking to a team directeur about one of his most successful up and comers (Trust me, you would know who he is) yet the directeur in question stopped him short and said, “I have no idea who you are talking about”
Is it just about contract negotiation?
Wayne Evans certainly doesn’t think so. “Typically rider agents, all they did was negotiate contracts, I found that wasn’t good enough,” Evans says. “My services that I provide to my athletes that I manage … are contract negotiation, sponsorship liaison and negotiation, media liaison, investment, financial planning and superannuation management, estate planning, accounting services and legal advice. It’s not good enough to say to your rider, here’s your 250,000 a year contract, I’ll see you at the end of the year when we re-negotiate.”
It is clear that there is a strong role for an agent to help organise an athlete’s life so they can focus their energies on simply pushing the pedals. Jason Bakker represents Cadel Evans and he believes that some of the services offered by [Wayne] Evans can in some situations be covered instead by the rider’s team. In general though, his sentiment remains the same.
“Agents need to look ahead for the athlete as well as focus on the present. For the athlete if they are always worrying too far ahead then they are not focused on what they are doing at the present time,” Bakker says.
For already established riders, however, an agent is not always essential. Bakker is quick to admonish against athletes falling in love with the ‘idea’ of having an agent. Sometimes for a cyclist with their priorities sorted, having an agent may add little to no value to the cyclists career.
Bakker believes for athletes with their foot already in the door, one of the most crucial roles for an agent is simply, “Setting up opportunities longer term, because as we are all aware, a career goes by in the blink of an eye.” Public speaking, a transition to the media or your own product lines all spring to mind.
Wayne Evans also highlights that just because you have an agent, it doesn’t ensure they are working in your best interests. Evans says, “Most definitely, and I’m happy to say this on the record. I’ve heard of agents selling a rider to a team and then attaching a condition that the team takes another rider out of his portfolio in order to get a double commission but he won’t allow the team to take the star rider unless they take the other rider as well. And yet the star rider wasn’t even aware he was being negotiated alongside another rider in the manager’s portfolio!”
Perhaps it pays to be alert, but not alarmed.
How do you become an Agent?
In order to become a UCI accredited agent one must travel to Switzerland and pass an exam set out by the UCI. The exam covers the rules, constitution and bylaws of the UCI and according to Wayne Evans it is no simple box ticking exercise. It requires a decent level of study and it heavily favours those who have been involved in the sport in the past.
Interestingly, it is possible to represent a rider if you are a lawyer or a direct family member of the rider in question. Jack Bobridge, for example, is represented by his father.
What do the teams think of Agents?
As in any workplace, contract negotiation can be particularly adversarial. As Evans highlights, “A lot of the teams don’t want the riders to get rider agents, because they think, rightly or wrongly, that they are going to have to pay more for a rider if he’s got an agent.”
On the other hand, a rider with professional representation should be better managed and presented in a manner that allows them to be a more successful asset to the team. In the social media age, teams want their riders wearing the right gear and saying the right things. Sometimes the odd ‘Fook Off’ from Cavendish can be come across as endearing. On the whole, however, agents shudder at the thought of one of their riders letting slip the odd abusive tweet.
The Business side of the Sport
Business is cut throat. Cycling is cut throat. That’s just life. Here is a story where life and cycling both suck. A World Tour rider who will remain anonymous had received a call from his agent. He was being offered xxxx from his current team, Team A, for next year. Or xxxx + a little bit more from Team B. This rider was happy where he was so he chose to stay put at Team A. Unbeknownst to this rider, his agent decided to try and cut a better deal with Team A by playing them off against the higher offer of Team B. Long story short, Team A said ‘no thanks’ and this rider was taken off the list. This rider then sat down to see a Cyclingnews report about his team’s roster for the next season, he was not on it.
This is a true story. But for professional reasons, it shall remain anonymous. Nutting out who was involved is not the point. It simply serves as an example that despite our romantic notions of muddy cobbled roads, twisting alpine descents and thundering sprint finishes that this sport is a business and it is not always fair.
In sport as in business, you look after your mates. It is very much common place for headline riders to ensure that their buddies get a contract as well when they negotiate with teams. Robbie McEwen and Nick Gates are a prime example. When you think about it, it just makes sense. If you want to bring along your most faithful domestique because you know they’ll do the job for you, they why shouldn’t you? If you want to bring along the guy you room with and love to hang out with, then of course you’ll give it a shot. The lesson in this for the rest of us is to find a future star and start schmoozing them now!
Building a Brand
Marketing is all around us these days. Everyone is trying to sell you something whether you know it or not. WorldTour teams exist for this purpose. Whether it’s a BMC bike, a Festina watch or a Power Bar energy bar, they are the products, we are the consumers. It’s much the same in regards to an athlete and their ‘brand’. Think Jens Voigt and his famous quip of ‘Shut Up Legs’. Think of Phillip Gilbert and his panache riddled big ring attacks at the end of hilly races. The more marketable an athlete, the more valuable they are to a team.
Cadel Evans was definitely lacking in the brand management department prior to him joining forces with Jason Bakker. Remember the fiery Cadel? The dog loving head ripping angry man? The guy that the collective cycling media referred to as ‘cuddles’ in a tongue in cheek salute to his icy cold media presence. Cadel desperately needed rebranding. Bakker was aware of Cadel’s image problems when he started working with him, but he could not quite understand them. Bakker explained, “I thought the public perception of Cadel of what came through the media was vastly different to who this guy really was… there was something amiss there, something really wasn’t connecting”
Part of this this Bakker readily attributes to a lack of preparation for a career in the spotlight. “I would doubt that Cadel had any media training on his earlier teams” he said.
This meant that Cadel was a prime candidate for good brand management. Bakker keeps it simple when trying to sell his athletes. “Manufacturing or manipulating a person into something they are not … I think that’s unethical. You want people to know the real person”
For Bakker this meant getting the ‘real’ Cadel out there, the one interested in social issues, the one interested in adoption, the laid back, honest Cadel. Bakker quickly pulled Cadel away from the European cycling media who had their pitchforks drawn, all hoping to poke and prod and fire up the ‘whiney’ Aussie. Instead Bakker lined Cadel up with new faces in the Australian media who helped him properly convey himself.
The difference in Cadel is nothing short of remarkable. Sure, some rainbow stripes and a maillot jaune would help you relax. But as Bakker pointed out, the media love cutting down a tall poppy. Thus Cadel’s success made it even more pertinent that his real image got across.
Conversely, Bakker highlighted that his newest recruit –Caleb Ewan- is only eighteen years old. For Ewan, it would be a different story. Bakker explained, “It’s a little bit different for Caleb. He may not have views on climate change, or sustainability, or other topical current affair type issues… he’s only just starting to do interviews and if anything we probably seek a little bit more media profile for him to build his profile. As opposed to Cadel where you are very selectively managing it.”
Armstrong, Landis, Contador, Schleck. You want a challenge? Look no further than managing the story of an athlete who has just gone positive. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of. After the Armstrong fallout the mainstream media finally started to connect the dots and started looking at who else had been associated with Michele Ferrari. Unfortunately for Evans and Bakker, this meant answering a few uncomfortable questions about Evans’ presence during a training session with the infamous doctor in 2000. Bakker advocates nothing other than transparency:
“Rather than sort of walk away from it or deny it… there’s nothing to hide but for sort of obvious reasons it’s not the kind of thing you want to be talking about … He did those things and rather than hide it or delay it he came out and answered the questions. There were four questions put to him and he answered all four questions … If you delay or decline you look clearly like you’re trying to hide something. You’ve done nothing wrong, but equally, you’d rather it didn’t happen,” Bakker told us.
Admittedly, in the scale of doping dramas, this was a particularly minor one. One can only imagine what the managers of some previous big name riders have gone through.
Drawing to a Close
There are some aspects of cycling that remain particularly opaque to those outside the inner sanctum and there will always be a lot that goes on that we will never see. Hopefully this article, however, has helped you get at least a fleeting glance at what goes on inside. Or if you happen to be a rider on the up, perhaps it’s time to think about who is really looking out for you! After all, it’s your livelihood.