Agent feature part II: CorSo’s Joao Correia on key topics in pro cycling
Former Cervélo Test Team professional Joao Correia is one half of the duo behind the Corso sports agency. Together with business partner Ken Sommer, who had key roles in the Cervélo and Leopard teams, Correia represents 24 riders, amongst them 2013 Milan Sanremo winner Gerald Ciolek, former Tour de France Maillot Jaune and stage winner Linus Gerdemann (both MTN Qhubeka), the American Ted King, past US time trial champion Tom Zirbel (Optum Kelly Benefits), Andre Cardoso (Garmin Sharp), Sergio Paulinho, Michael Valgren Andersen (both Tinkoff Saxo), Stefan Denifl (IAM Cycling) and Jake Keough (UnitedHealthcare).
In part II of this interview, Correia comments on the controversy of the Giro d’Italia’s sixteen stage, where riders attacked on the neutralised descent of the Stelvio, talks about the lack of unity evident amongst competitors and teams, assesses the current situation relating to doping in the sport, debates the introduction of transfer fees proposed by team owners such as Sean Kelly and explains what key advice he would give to aspiring pros. He also details what CorSo recommends to the young riders it signs and those nearing the end of their career.
[Read part one here]
“Sometimes I feel that the safety and health of the riders is the first thing to be sacrificed for that show to go on”
Correia and Sommer represent riders for a living, looking after their interests and helping them negotiate their deals. It is consequently of little surprise that he has a viewpoint about what happened in the controversial 16th stage of the Giro d’Italia.
Firstly, riders had to compete in conditions that many of them felt were too dangerous and severe, with snow and freezing temperatures affecting the route. Secondly, race organisers neutralised the descent of the Stelvio, but the situation was confused and the messages over race radio conflicting.
Eventual race winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar), stage runner-up Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) were part of group which pushed ahead, while behind other general classification contenders held back and lost time.
The following day many teams demand that the race organisers and the UCI deduct some of the time gained by the trio, but the governing body refused to do so.
Weighing up what happened that day, Correia believes changes must be made.
For many years the UCI had a dominant position and so too companies such as ASO; Correia believes that every group within the sport should be heard, and getting the balance right is crucial. Once that is done, he said it will help avoid some of the issues surrounding what happened at the Italian Grand Tour.
“I think definitely every single stakeholder isn’t necessarily unified in matter such as what happened at the Giro,” he said, commenting on professional cyclists’ ability to collectively argue a point. “Whether it is the riders, the team or even the organisers. I think they need to get that unity.
“I think this whole Avignon group is a positive thing in that it will unify a lot of the top teams and create their own voice. The only thing that worries me is the balance of power; if the riders don’t also have a unified voice that is powerful, then there could be a negative balance of power.
“Right now, there is little unity for those within their own groups, whether it is teams, race organisers or riders. Basically, the race organiser that matter is the Tour, and everybody else fights a little bit [for what is left]. The teams seem to be getting more organised than before, but there certainly isn’t a unified voice because everyone has their own interests.
“If you look at what happened in the Giro, there were obviously teams who had their own interests and were not in line with the interests of the others. I don’t know how a unified voice in teams will help a situation like that, but there was clearly a lack of a unified voice.”
Pressed for an opinion about what happened when eventual race winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and others attacked on what was supposed to be a neutralised descent, he said that he saw things both ways.
“I can see Quintana’s point when he said that he thought it was neutralising the first couple of turns, but at the same time I can see the point of the other riders who were basically played by whatever those rules were. That said, those rules were made up at the moment.
“It is kind of confusing. Everyone who has ever raced at that level knows that going over a climb in that kind of weather is like climbing at extreme altitude. You are not exactly making decisions like you are sitting on a couch.”
Whether or not Quintana was right, he believes the bigger issue is that of the riders’ wellbeing. “What I’d like to see more of is better consideration in relation to stages like that, days in the race which are really dangerous to riders’ health and safety. That needs to be looked at. I understand that the show must go on, but sometimes I feel that the safety and health of the riders is the first thing to be sacrificed for that show to go on. We can’t forget that the riders are the principal actors in the show.”
As for the unity of the teams themselves and their ability to maximise their share of the sports’ revenue, he again references the Avignon group as something which could be of major benefit.
“I think it has a lot of potential to create a stabilisation for the teams. This then allows them to focus on how they can raise revenue. For example, we should be using cycling to create content. The teams can’t do that right now, but as fans of teams and individual riders, there should be a way for those riders and those teams to create content that they can be paid for by people who are willing to value that content.
“I believe that things like the Avignon group will hopefully be able to do that. To unify the voice of the teams – whether it is via the Avignon group or someone else – and focus on how what we can now do to make this pie bigger and create revenue. That’s better than just worrying about our little piece of it.
“I think the riders need to do the same thing – they need to unify their voice and create value so that they can market that value and take a piece of it.”
He refers to the NFL, leagues which he points out were very small at one point but which grew many times over once the owners and players started pulling together. “Today, you look at the NBA, you look at the NFL…they are huge, huge international businesses. That is because they are operating from a unified point of view, once which looks at the best of the whole as opposed to the best of one team.”
Doping: “I think we have been heading in the right direction for a long time”
Of course, in any consideration of the value of cycling and the potential for growth, the shadow of doping can’t be ignored. The various scandals which have shaken up the sport over recent decades have each left craters, deep indentations in the development of the sport which have taken time to heal.
Whether it was the Festina Affair, the Pantani Giro expulsion, Operacion Puerto, Rasmussen’s enforced withdrawal from the Tour in yellow or the Armstrong/US Postal Service scandal, the image of the sport has taken a hammering, and the evolution of cycling has stuttered.
It’s clearly not good for business or credibility if scandals keep occurring. Covering up the issue isn’t a solution, though; instead, it’s important to modify the culture and to do everything possible to prevent similar issues occurring again.
The biological passport has been in place for several years and Correia believes that this has had a worthwhile effect. “In my opinion, cycling has been a little bit more beat up than most of the sports, in terms of what is happening with the whole drug culture,” he said. “But I think there has been a significant shift. I think that shift happened a long time ago…I don’t think it is just now.
“I think the sport today is…I don’t know if it is right to say it is 100 percent clean – I don’t think any sport is 100 percent clean – but I think the sport is doing as well as it has ever done. That is due to the mentality of the teams and the riders.
“If you talk to young riders today about the doping culture, for them it is not even a possibility. It just doesn’t enter their way of thinking. Whereas in the old days, it was as if that was the culture you came into. That it was part of the sport. Nobody even thought twice about it.”
He believes the majority of riders have made the right decisions in recent seasons. “I think we have gone over that tipping point a long time ago. I don’t think I could have ever raced in 2010, at the level that I raced, if the sport wasn’t clean,” he said. “It just would have been impossible, being away after ten years, then racing two years in the US and then coming back.
“I think part of that was because the sport was cleaner than before and it wasn’t full gas every day. If you raced hard, guys were tired. Then if you raced hard again, guys were tired once more. It wasn’t just all the time ‘on’. I do believe we have gone on from that and that the culture of the sport has completely been changed. I think that happened a while ago.”
Correia is aware that the biggest danger would be to sit back. Weeds grow through untended cracks, and so it is important to keep the pressure on, for the authorities to be vigilant and for teams and riders to continue respecting the rules. If something can be improved in this area, he said he’d like to see it happen.
“I believe the bio passport is a great programme. But I think like anything else, everything can be made better. Chris Froome recently made a point about how he and a couple of other riders there [at altitude training in Teide – ed.] weren’t tested in a two week time period.
Transfer fees and helping the development teams:
Correia and Sommer will head to the Tour de France next month to work on contract negotiations. Some of their riders have come from development teams; asked if he agreed with the call by people such as Sean Kelly for Continental teams to be given transfer fees when riders move up to a higher level.
Kelly is involved in running the An Post Chainreaction Sean Kelly team and each year sees some of his riders move to bigger squads. For example, Sam Bennett secured a pro deal with the NetApp Endura team after winning a stage of the Tour of Britain; Kelly told CyclingTips earlier this year that he believes the UCI should change its rules to ensure that squads like his are compensated when a rider moves on.
Asked his view, Correia saw merit to Kelly’s argument.
“I think you need to look at the initiatives of teams. What initiatives do they have? How did they help riders to progress? You look at somebody like Axel Merckx, who has probably done the best job out of anybody I can think of in terms of developing riders for the WorldTour.
“He has not only put an incredible number of riders in the WorldTour – 15 in total – but by the time those riders get to those teams, the teams feel that they are the finished product.
“They have served their apprenticeship, they know how to get bottles, they know what the job is. I think you would absolutely need to figure out how to reward people like that so they don’t struggle to survive. Again, that goes back to what I was saying about needing to make decisions about putting value in the sport, as opposed to protecting the interest of a few people.”
He said in calling for such teams to be compensated, that it could in a way affect CorSo negatively. However he sees the bigger picture and believes a transfer fee is fair to introduce.
“For agents like us, the transfer fees would actually be a negative thing, because that is our job – to identify talent and to bring it to the bigger teams,” he stated. “But I think it is absolutely important that if you have teams that are grooming and building the careers of these guys, that everybody should share in that.
“I have even brought up that riders that are coming from these programmes should take a part of their salary and kick it back to those programmes, because those are the programmes that made them.”
He sees a parallel for many people in everyday careers. “It is very much like me donating to my university every single year. It gave me a great education, it allowed me to great things as a professional, so I write a cheque to them every year so that they can support current students better.
Advice for young riders, neo pros and those nearing retirement:
Countless young fans of the sport dream of turning professional. Only a small fraction of those have the necessary talent and opportunity, but many dream nonetheless. Asked as to what the riders aiming for a contract should do to boost their chances, Correia gave solid pointers.
“I think the most important thing is to try to race at a high level as much as you can,” he said. “Whether it is racing in Europe or racing with the national team, results matter from a young age.
“Generally the top guys of each category move up to the next category at a high level. If you are able to move up at a high level, you have access to better training, better racing, equipment and better people that will allow you to get the best out of yourself.
“In my opinion, the most important thing in any sport or even in life is to just keep going. Don’t give up. If you believe in yourself, put 100 percent into it and really aim to be the best you can be.
“It is about the racing. When we look at young riders and we talk to teams, results matter. Potential matters as well, of course, but potential is derived from results. It is a question of just really making sure that every day you show up for a race, you show up to race and fight. That is a really important thing. If you are focussed on that, everything else comes.”
Once a rider is on the brink of a pro contract, Correia said that a long term vision is needed rather than prioritising short term returns. “There are different stages. We have kids that are looking to turn pro and who are very, very good,” he said. “For us, the most important thing is finding the right team for them, for their first two, three years. The money is secondary to that.
“They are all going to be paid roughly the same…those contracts are very, very similar with a few outlier exceptions. But I want to focus on putting a young rider in the right team for that point in their career…this will allow them to grow over the next two, three years. The alternative might be that they make an additional 50,000 euros over three years, but then by the time they are 22 they are not in the place they need to be to make the next step.
“I really see our job as three things….First we want to maximise the amount of money our riders make over their career, over that ten, fifteen year period. That is our primary job. Second, we are serious about making sure that our riders become the best riders they can possibly be, whether that is a domestique or it is potentially a Grand Tour winner. Get each one to the end of their careers able to say that they left it all out there.
“Lastly and probably the one that is most important to me is that by the time their careers are done, they have options. They have enough money in the bank so that they can create options for themselves.”
Holding onto that money is important, both at the start and also towards the end of a career. “Perhaps it means telling a 21 year old neo-pro that buying a €70,000 car isn’t the best choice for them, and making sure, as we do, that all our neo-pros save 20 percent of their salary and it is invested.
“We want to make sure that by the time they come out of the sport, and they are ready to start their lives – because that is really when their lives will start – that they have enough financial security that they can make the best options for themselves and their families going forward. Because that is a big change.”
He is concerned that there is not enough focus on this at present. Athletes by nature have tunnel vision, concentrating on the next race or a target a little further down the line. Succeeding at the pro level demands that approach, but being so laser-focussed can mean a rider risks losing sight of the bigger picture.
“It is one of the things I feel that nobody really addresses, and it needs to start getting addressed,” he states. “I think this is a role of the UCI and the teams as well – how do you prepare these guys for their lives afterwards? If you take somebody who is about to retire – and people retire every year, whether it is by choice, like many of the champions can do, or if their contracts aren’t renewed – how do you make it that when they get up on that Monday morning and they no longer have that goal of training and racing, that they have the tools necessary to deal with that?”
Correia has been in that position, of course, being left on the sideline after the Cervélo Test Team folded. He knows what it is like to have to try to adjust, even if his college education and prior working experiences helped him to quickly move to an alternative.
There are others, though, who don’t have the same background and for them it is more difficult.
He believes that agents and others should help riders with their careers, but also help prepare them for what comes next. “I see it every year with friends and colleagues that really struggle with that change. There is no support system for them. There is nothing out there. There is nobody out there saying, ‘hey, what you are feeling is really normal. This is how you should deal with it. It happens to a lot of people.’
“We deal with a lot of riders who have a lot of issues that the teams aren’t necessary set up to support them, whether it is food issues, weight issues, things like that where we need to put a system in place so that we are not only creating champions, we are creating productive members of society after their careers are over.”
It’s an issue that is not unique to cycling, but to athletes in general. “Every sport struggles with this. I think I read a statistic that 78% of NFL players and 60% of NBA players file for bankruptcy within five years of retirement. It’s staggering, especially if you think about the dollar amounts those guys are making.
“I think nobody looks at that right now and they need to.”
He said that CorSo makes sure this is on their riders’ minds since the start. “It’s why we tell each of our neo-pros, ‘you must save 20% of your money. I don’t care what you do with it, where you invest it, but it has to be saved. You can only touch it when you buy your first home.’ It’s important to teach them a little bit about building wealth.”
What they said:
Jonathan Vaughters, CEO Garmin-Sharp/Slipstream Sports:
“As far as agents go, I’m partial to those agencies that hound you about guys that haven’t gotten a chance yet.. Calling me up and saying “Hey, would you like Peter Sagan?” and then doing the same to ten other team managers, taking the highest bid, collecting 10%, and being done with the day doesn’t take much love or effort. On the other hand, the guys who bust their ass to get a guy who’s been overlooked a small deal get my respect.
“Joao probably spent more on his phone bill than he made off of the deal with Cardoso, but he got Cardoso a deal in the World Tour, and now André is outperforming anyone’s expectations. Joao showed true passion for getting André a chance and he showed real belief in his athlete. That always pulls the heartstrings a bit with me and certainly makes me more disposed to do business with Corso and Joao going forward. Even if one day it is the $5MM deal.”
Ted King, pro rider with Cannondale Pro Cycling:
“Any relationship between an athlete and a manager should be based on trust. And yet the surprising reality is that in the majority of cases, that trust does not exist. My relationship with Joao has a foundation first as acquaintance, then as teammates, and above all as sincere friends. I know that with Joao and Corso my best interest is always their first priority.”
Michael Valgren Andersen, pro rider with Tinkoff Saxo:
“For me working with CorSo sports has just made my life as a cyclist easier. Whenever I have a problem with something about cycling stuff, and especially when I moved to another country they was a major help. For a neo pro there are a lot of things you don’t know, but I feel safe in these conditions and that’s because I trust CorSo.
“I don’t know how other agencies are like, but I don’t think you became very good friends with your manager, because that is what Ken and Joao are to me, my friends! They call me now and then just to chat, come to visit and I find that extremely awesome and a safe feeling.”
In part one of this detailed feature interview with CyclingTips, Correia explains why he believes rider/team relationships trump the search for the highest salary, speaks about the reason why Milan-Sanremo winner Gerald Ciolek stayed with MTN Qhubeka, discusses the stability that Brian Cookson’s election has brought, expresses concerns about one aspect of the UCI’s planned future direction, and weighs in on the millionaire entrepreneurs bankrolling some pro teams. Click here to read more.