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Officially speaking, cycling is a fully professional sport with minimum wage levels for WorldTour and Pro Continental teams, regulations that ensure that everyone racing at those levels is paid to do so.
In reality, the situation is rather different. CyclingTips has spoken to several sources within and around the pro peloton, with these individuals confirming that two scenarios exist that contradict the spirit of rules about minimum wages.
The first situation is clearly contrary to UCI regulations; the second is a much more a grey area. However, even if it doesn’t specifically break rules, it distorts the market and acts as a barrier to some riders who deserve places on teams.
Combined together, the two scenarios reveal worrying trends within the sport and raise questions about the efficacy of the regulation of WorldTour and Pro Continental teams.
Grueling sport, but racing for free:
UCI regulations lay out clear directives for the wages that any riders above Continental level must receive. For those racing with WorldTour squads, a minimum wage of 36,300 euro per year exists. This can be reduced to 29,370 euro in the case of neo-pros.
As for Pro Continental squads, they must pay a minimum of 30,250 euro to their riders, or 25,300 euro to neo-pros.
In reality, it appears that some teams disregard those instructions. CyclingTips spoke to a rider who has competed at WorldTour, Pro Continental and Continental level in recent years. Because he remains in the peloton he wished to remain anonymous; we will refer to him as Rider 1 during the course of this article.
“I contacted a WorldTour team in the past seeing if there was a place,” he told CyclingTips. “I got an email saying that there was a possible slot, but that it had no money. That was kind of how they worded it; ‘we have got a place for him, but no salary.’ So that would have to be paid back under the counter in some way. Needless to say, I didn’t accept.”
The situation is kept relatively quiet within the sport. Koen de Kort, who competes with the Giant Shimano team and who has ridden in support of Grand Tour stage winners Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb, said that he heard of the scenario in the peloton when he first turned pro, but that he hadn’t been aware that it still continues.
“Nowadays I don’t hear that much about it at all any more,” said de Kort, who was willing to be named. “I think with all the tax situations, they are much more onto it now. I think every contract that I have gets looked through about five times by the Dutch tax office.
“I am quite sure that it wouldn’t get through if I just paid my own money back under the counter. I don’t think that would be even possible to do.”
However Rider 1 explained one mechanism by which such a payback could be achieved.
“Sometimes I think it is done via expenses – they get minimum salary from the team, but they then have to pay for their own flights and the hotels. Perhaps the team will invoice them so much each month for that. It would be things the rider doesn’t normally have to pay for, but it is just the team’s way of getting the money back officially.
“If the UCI look into it, they can see that the team is paying the rider a minimum wage. So at first glance, it would seem that there is no problem and that everything is normal.
“That happens a bit. I think a lot of guys will ride for free. They will just pay the money back somehow.”
Rider 2 is a competitor who raced at WorldTour level for many years, had success in Grand Tours and took national championship titles. CyclingTips contacted him to see if he was aware of riders effectively competing without pay by returning money after it was handed over.
He confirmed he was aware of the situation. “I’ve heard of riders racing for free. I actually wondered how it could have been possible, given that there is a minimum salary, but what you say about money being repaid under the counter might be the explanation.
“I’ve personally never heard of WorldTour teams doing it, but it is something at Pro Continental level.”
Given the shortage of rider contracts in recent years due to the collapse of some squads, the market favours teams rather than individuals at this point in time. With those pro setups being spoilt for choice, there is scope to play tough and to make demands that should normally not be entertained.
A European-based rider agent confirmed this sort of arrangement was something he was aware of, and expressed frustration that it exists.
“I have definitely heard of this,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, “and it has been proposed to me as well by a Pro-Conti team.
“We don’t work this way and I think it’s disrespectful, unprofessional and unethical. The job of a professional cyclist is super hard and needs to be rewarded.
“I can understand the temptation of a rider to make a deal like this out of sheer desperation – the team side of a deal like this is however unacceptable.
“If a team does not have the funds to pay the minimum salary it shouldn’t be allowed to compete on a professional level.”
The question of personal sponsors:
The second scenario is a little less black and white. It could be considered unsporting rather than one that actually breaks UCI rules. However, as Rider 1 points out, it can have a very strong effect on others who are trying to make it in the sport based on their ability and results alone.
“From what I know, there are riders who will go to a team with a personal sponsor. The team will pay them the salary that they have to pay, but the sponsor will have to put so much money back into the team,” he explained.
“It kind of makes sense in a way at a lower level, for a smaller team. It is another way to go out and source some money. It’s essentially using the rider as a contact to the sponsor.
“It has happened in Belgium for a long time. Sometimes it works, some of these teams exists solely due to people coming with their own sponsors. That explains why some teams out there have about 500 sponsors on their jerseys.”
De Kort said that he could see a degree of logic in it. “If you bring on a sponsor and the sponsor pays the team money and the team uses that money to pay you, I guess that could be a valid reason to have a rider on board,” he said.
“I guess there is nothing illegal with that either. I could understand that happens. I don’t think anything like that happens on my team, though. I haven’t learned anything about that, and obviously I have been with this team for quite a while.”
In contrast, Rider 2 said that he was fully aware of it occurring elsewhere. “I heard a lot of riders getting places on teams only if they bring on sponsorship with them. That sponsorship then can cover their salary and increase the team budget.”
The rider agent confirmed that this is common practice. “I think this is super wide-spread in WorldTour as well as Pro-Conti teams,” he said. “A bike rider who brings a sponsor on board will get a spot on a team for sure.”
How is that sponsorship secured, though? According to Rider 1, a lot of time family and friends are a link to the personal sponsorships. This is either a direct payment from them, or alternatively it is an arrangement with contacts they have in the bike industry and elsewhere.
“It is probably all tax related – it will be a company, and they can spend so much money on marketing,” Rider 1 explained. “They can write it off as a tax expense or something like that.”
The obvious issue with the scenario is that if a team is considering two individuals of a similar level and one has a personal sponsorship deal, he is more likely to get the nod.
It means that the places may not be decided in terms of a rider’s strength, experience, past results or determination, but rather on who he knows and what they can hand over.
As was seen above, the rider agent was very strongly against the first scenario, that of a rider competing for free. He said that he is less perturbed by the notion of a personal sponsor helping competitors land contracts, providing the correct standard is there.
“First of all the rider needs to be at a certain level. If he is not able to compete on a professional level physically it’s for sure a joke,” he said.
“I think it also depends on the type of sponsor involved. If it’s a sponsor that only pays the one rider’s salary and does not benefit the team or adds value to the team it is definitely less than ideal. However if the rider brings on a substantial sponsorship for the team – why not?
“If the rider has the level to compete – I’d definitely hire him if I was a team manager. The relationship this rider has to a sponsor will benefit the team and should be rewarded.”
Rider 1 gives a different perspective, admitting that he has been very frustrated at times. “You could say it is not fair, that I am a better rider than this guy, but his dad owns a company so he is on this team.
“That said, I think you can look into it in too much detail sometimes. Life is just like that, life is not fair. Whatever job you are in and whatever walk of life, there is always going to be stuff like that going on. People have got an unfair advantage or whatever.
“It is in every job, every part of life, really. Of course you think about it sometimes when it is October and you still haven’t signed a contract. You think about it when there is some guy that you know you are better than and who you have better results than what he has, but for some reason he just has a bit of money coming from somewhere.”
Still, while he has been personally frustrated by the practice, he is able to see the bigger picture and acknowledges that there may be benefits. He also accepts that the personal sponsorship issue might be very difficult to eliminate.
“What can the UCI actually do? If they did find a way to stop it, they are essentially going to stop a lot of money coming into cycling,” he said.
“If you have got a guy who has this money, he has got a pot of cash he can spend on whatever he wants. If his son doesn’t get a place on this team, is that money going to end up in cycling or in the sport, or is it going to end up in another sport or another form of marketing?”
Ignoring minimum salaries: what can be done?
Whatever your view on scenario two and teams signing riders based on who they know rather than how they ride, the first situation is unsupportable. The UCI WorldTour is a sector of the sport with combined team budgets of upwards of 100 million euros. Factor in the Pro Continental teams too and it’s clear that there is a lot of money involved.
The notion that any rider should have to race for free is extraordinary, and is one that the UCI must address.
Rider 2 isn’t sure how it would be done unless those in the peloton stand up and speak out. “The problem is that we are in a market where there are more riders than places available so, in the low end, everyone wants to ‘give it a try’ to racing as a pro even without a salary, hoping to get a bigger contract later,” he said.
“The UCI can do very little in my opinion until the riders report their situation to authority. But ultimately it’s their choice. If they increase the minimum wage at this level can be an options, but it’s like setting a minimum salary for women’s cycling. The risk is that many teams will just shut down.”
The rider agent believes it is up to the governing body to rectify things. It’s not enough to have regulations about minimum salaries if these are not respected by the teams supposedly compelled to do so by those rules.
“I think riders who have been asked to ride for free should step forward and mention this practice to the UCI,” he said. “Teams need to be penalized for this, and don’t belong in the professional circuit. It’s completely unethical.”
As for Rider 1, he is greatly frustrated by the situation. “I think there are a fair few guys who are racing without a salary,” he said. “They are still living at home. They just live and breathe cycling, they don’t care about the money. In fact, they don’t actually need the money, because their parents are still paying for them to get by.
“Maybe they are young and they just want to get their foot in the door and get themselves onto a pro team. For sure, there are people doing it for free.
“They are the guys you are up against, and it does piss you off when you hear stories like ‘so and so signed for this team, but he is not getting paid anything.’ You think to yourself then, ‘for f*ck’s sake…’”
Further reading – see our follow-up feature: UCI, CPA, AIGCP weigh in on minimum wage violations, contract issues