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by Shane Stokes
June 13, 2014
Best known as someone who transformed his life to become a European professional at 34 years of age, former Cervélo Test Team rider Joao Correia now runs the CorSo sports agency with business partner Ken Sommer. 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 while also expressing concerns about the UCI’s future direction, and weighs in on the millionaire entrepreneurs bankrolling some pro teams.
For many fans of the sport, the thoughts of abandoning the desk job and breaking into into the pro ranks is a dream scenario; several years ago, Correia did precisely that. After competing for a season and a half with Bissell Pro Cycling, the former Associate Publisher of Bicycling magazine got the opportunity to race with the Cervélo Test Team in 2010.
Lining out in the service of big guns such as Carlos Sastre and Thor Hushovd at 34 years of age was a dream development for Correia, a Portuguese national with an American accent and upbringing. He had competed for several years as an amateur, done a season with the Portuguese Continental team Troiamariscos in 1995, gone to college, went into business, bulked up, then got a second chance at his first love and turned pro.
For Correia, racing with the Cervélo Test Team was tough but very rewarding. While he was unable to find a new slot when the team folded at the end of 2010, he looks back on that year as a rewarding period in his life. Being part of a team with a very big sense of unity was a big highlight for him, and so too the adventure of the whole project.
The team ended but his umbilical link to the sport remained. He initially returned to the corporate world with a year and a half-long stint with LinkedIn. Correia maintained a link with cycling, organising bike tours in the Chianti region of Italy and entertaining guests with his tales of the pro scene.
Taking in some of the best roads in the region, the In Gamba trips also put a firm emphasis on eating and drinking well, and proved to be popular with those who signed up.
However Correia had another link to the sport, and it was this one which drew him back into the pro scene. “I had helped a few guys get contracts in Europe,” he told CyclingTips, talking in detail about his role and how he sees the sport from an agent’s perspective.
“Most agents in the business tend to be people who have retired from the sport or who have relationships with riders. I always had this belief where I felt these might not be the most qualified people to be leading somebody’s career.”
Together with Ken Sommer, who had previously had big roles in the setup and running of the Cervélo and Leopard teams, the duo established the CorSo company. “We did it because we knew these guys needed help,” he explained. “We knew we could be good at it, we had the background for it. Number one, I had my professional work experience, and number two I had my experience within the sport as a rider. Then there was Ken’s marketing background and his experience working inside of a team.
“We felt that between the two of us we had all the skills that we needed to really understand the sport and influence the game for the benefit of the riders. So we set up CorSo.”
Correia saw the UCI’s moves to professionalise and licence the agent sphere as a plus. He was in the first batch of people to undergo the related examinations and, over time, realised he needed to dedicate himself fulltime to the new role. As a result he stepped back from his LinkedIn position and knuckled down.
The company started off working with riders such as Ted King [pictured above], Laurens ten Dam, Sergio Paulinho, Gerald Ciolek and Stefan Denifl. Ciolek has been a standout, winning Milan-Sanremo in 2013 with the MTN Qhubeka team and reaffirming a talent which had earlier earned him the world under 23 road race title and a stage win in the Vuelta a España.
Correia and Sommer brought former Tour de France Maillot Jaune Linus Gerdemann on board when he returned to the sport, and also represent others such as Garmin-Sharp’s André Cardoso and former US time trial champion Tom Zirbel.
Each has their own role, and Correia praises Sommer for his ability to identify talent. “He has got an amazing eye for potential riders,” he said. “In the last year we have started to change our approach. Because we only want to have twenty riders on the roster, we have started to focus the approach on young kids and have been signing a lot of young riders.
“We have signed Michael Valgren Andersen, Mads Pedersen, and Tao Geoghegan Hart [who are now racing for Tinkoff Saxo, Cult Energy and Bissell Development team respectively – ed.], probably three of the top riders in their age group category. That is our focus right now, on really helping these young kids develop.”
Correia said that CorSo has a different approach to other agents, in that he said it tries to build strong relationships with all of the teams as well as their own riders. He said that while other agents may have strong links to a few squads, CorSo tries to have good relationships across the board.
As a result he said that the company has a bigger range of choices, and thus he feels it is better able to match up competitors to the right environment.
“When we talk to teams, we tend to talk to them about very specific riders. We generally try to find out what type of riders the teams are looking for, or we identify which teams could maybe use that type of rider. Then we look at the riders we have, and we try to talk to those teams about specific individuals. That’s opposed to just going to them and saying, ‘here’s our 20 riders, pick two.’
“Equally, we really try to talk to the riders. We try to understand what teams they would love to work for. We ask every one of them, ‘what is our top three, what are your priorities, which teams would you be interested in riding for?’”
He said they then see if they can find a match between both sides; if so, the relationship is more likely to be a good one. And, according to Correia, good pairings can go on to be lasting ones.
“For riders who are already on teams that we have, we always say that there isn’t a need to change unless somebody is unhappy. For example, we have André Cardoso on Garmin. He loves Garmin, it is a great team for him. So for us the priority is to keep him on Garmin. To come to an agreement with Garmin that fits everybody.
“So there is no need to play games. ‘We can instead say, ‘this is where he wants to stay, you guys want him to stay, so let’s come to agreement.’
“I think that is fairly unique. We try to make sure that whatever we do with the rider and with the team doesn’t hurt our future relationship with either. I feel that if you are straightforward and have an honest approach and a process that you work with, and the teams and the riders understand that, then everybody going forward is on the same page.
“It means that the following year when you talk to them again, they already know that this is the process that we use. They can understand this process and things tend to be fairly easy and productive for everybody.”
Ciolek is a case in point; after he won Milan-Sanremo last season, he spoke to MTN Qhubeka and came to an agreement to extend his contract. “There was a lot of interest in him in the market. But for us, MTN was a programme which created an amazing environment for him, which allowed him to start performing at the highest level again,” Correia said, explaining why the German decided to stay with a Pro Continental team rather than looking for a WorldTour deal.
“We wanted to reward that with him staying there. It was just a question of coming to an arrangement that was at market value.
“In his case, you had a rider who had just won Milan-Sanremo and who created a certain expectation in the market, with his value rising considerably. For us that was a perfect example of the situation where you have a great relationship with the teams and you know that the team is the right spot for the individual. Then you can come to an arrangement which meets that market value, and which also keeps in mind the best interest of the team plus the best interests of the rider, including areas other than the financial perspective.”
Looking to broader matters within the sport, Correia is clear that the election of Brian Cookson as the new UCI President is a positive step forward. That said, he also expresses a clear reservation over a major change the governing body is planning.
In the short term, he feels the change in presidency has brought a new confidence. “For me, what Brian brought when he was elected was stability. I tend to think of things very much in the sense of financial markets,” he said. “In my opinion, when Brian was elected it sent a message to the market that there is change in place, that there is stability coming. I think everybody agrees that we needed that as a sport. For me it was a very positive thing, and now we see what he does.
“They have already made some changes, they seem to be working in the right direction. Not everybody likes the direction they are going, but for me they stabilised the market and are bringing positive things to the sport.”
However Correia admits that he and others have concerns about the planned changes for teams. The UCI has already announced a restructuring of the sport which will be fully in place by 2017. It will see the top ranked [currently called WorldTour] teams limited to having just 22 riders, rather than the current roster of up to 30.
The top sixteen of those will be able to do 120 days of WorldTour racing, rather than the current 150. The second rank of these teams will only be able to do 50, and will make up the gap by competing in other lower-ranked events. There will also be teams in the Pro Continental and Continental ranks.
Correia explained why he is not convinced by the structure. “The main thing is the fact that WorldTour teams are going to go to 22 riders, and they have to have a Continental [development] team. So that is going to be an interesting change. I am still not sure if its positive. I think from my perspective, I would rather see that there be no limit on riders so that we are back in the days where if a team wanted to have 35, 40 riders, they could do that, as opposed limiting it to 22.
“I think with the 22 rider rule coming into effect, we are going to see the erasing of the middle class of cycling. You are going to have the top riders who make a lot of money continuing to make a lot of money and be the top riders, and then you are going to see that middle class getting erased. Then it is going to be all entry-level pros making minimum salary. As a result I am actually not a huge fan of the 22 rider team setup.”
Correia believes that the new model is essentially going to slash the number of riders who have contracts with big teams.
“I don’t know what the logic is. I think that it is going to be a significant shift in the market, like it was when they introduced the points system. Before the points system, you looked at the salary bell curve, it went up at a more gradual rate. The bottom salary and the top salaries were similar but the curve had a more gradual build.
“So the top riders were making…whatever that ceiling was, it was roughly the same. But when they introduced the points system, that bell curve was flat, flat, flat, then it shot up.
“It meant that all of a sudden, all of these riders who had points were worth a million euros, whereas before they might only have been worth 400 thousand euros. And if other guys didn’t have points, they were all of a sudden down. They were in the bottom of the bell curve.”
Correia is clear that he believes it was a negative development for the sport. “I think it really destabilised things. Why? Well, because in my opinion you really need to consider in any of these things one question: what is the motivation factor going to be? After all, you are going to get the end result based on that motivating factor.
“Consider if you are telling riders to work for the team, saying that is their job and that they don’t have to worry about anything else. At the end of the day, thought, if they don’t have points, their salary is going to go down or they are not going to be able to get jobs. That result is pretty easy to see.
“So what worries me about this 22 rider rule is that it is going to completely make the middle of market disappear. And right now, at CorSo, we don’t have huge, huge stars on our rosters. We are hoping to make some of those with our young kids that we have signed over the last year, but we don’t have huge, huge stars. So I think it is going to be a really negative thing.”
Asked what would have been a preferable option, Correia said going in the other direction and abolishing the rider cap rule would be a step forward. “I believe that would work better,” he states. “And if you are worried about the richer teams getting all the riders and just sitting them down [to remove competition], make the maximum size 30 or 32 riders, or introduce a salary cap.”
He argues that every decision made at this point in time should be about one thing: the growth of cycling. “I think we are at a point in the sport where we are in a changing place – hopefully we have gotten over the hump and we are in a changing place – and all the stakeholders really need to focus on how we grow this sport.
“The important question is, how are we going to make decision that are going to create more jobs, make better returns for everybody? Then after you have done that, you can worry about the fine-tuning.”
Because of this stance, he said that he doesn’t consider it a drawback to have a lot of rich investors in the sport. “I personally think it is great,” he said, referring to the likes of Zedenek Bakala of Omega Pharma Quick Step, Andy Rihs of the BMC Racing Team and Oleg Tinkov of Tinkoff Saxo.
“Anything that is going to put money in the sport is, I think, a positive thing. If you have these billionaires on the Forbes list who are super-passionate about cycling and want to own their own teams, I think that is fantastic. We do need sponsors as well. But in our current environment, if it wasn’t for these guys willing to write big cheques, we would be in a whole world of trouble.”
In part II of this interview [click here], Correia comments on the controversy of the Giro d’Italia’s sixteenth 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 and debates the introduction of transfer fees proposed by team owners such as Sean Kelly. He also explains what key advice he would give to aspiring pros, plus the important recommendation CorSo recommends to the young riders it signs.