What factors determine pro cyclist salaries?

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Three-week Grand Tours, week-long stage races, gruelling Classics and perhaps over 10,000 kilometres of racing per year. Professional cycling is undoubtedly one of the toughest sports around, if not the most difficult, but how much do riders earn for all that hardship?

CyclingTips spoke to two rider agents about this topic, Paul de Geyter and Ken Sommer. De Geyter manages a wide range of riders including Tom Boonen, Tejay Van Garderen, Jan Bakelants, Greg Van Avermaet, Maxime Bouet, Matt Goss and Luke Durbridge.

Sommer works alongside former Cervélo Test Team pro Joao Correia at the Corso agency and represents competitors such as Gerald Ciolek, Laurens ten Dam, Linus Gerdemann, Ted King and Evelyn Stevens.

Both had an important insight to give into this rarely-reported side of the sport, showing that salaries are about a lot more than simply results.

To begin, let’s talk about the base figures. The UCI regulations don’t specify maximums, but they do make clear what minimum wages teams must pay.

For those racing with WorldTour squads, a minimum wage of 36,300 euro (AUD$54,500) per year exists. This can be reduced to 29,370 euro (AUD$44,000) in the case of neo-pros.

As for Pro Continental squads, they must pay a minimum of 30,250 euro (AUD$45,000) to their riders, or 25,300 euro (AUD$38,000) to neo-pros. That said, CyclingTips has received indications from some riders and agents that these rules are at times broken by teams.

According to Sommer, most neo-pros do indeed start on the minimum wage, although riders who have had good success in the amateur ranks can command more.

“If you have a really, really good rider that wins races at under 23 level or who as an under 23 already raced with pros and beat them on some occasions, it can be different,” he said.

“So too for riders who did well in the world championships or won the Tour de l’Avenir. In those cases, the salary could potentially go to six figures. But that is really high for a neo-pro; most are on the basic salary when they start.”

In fact, De Geyter said that there are a considerable proportion of riders – not just neo-pros – who race at or near that threshold.

“It has not been the easiest season. I would guess between 30 and 40 percent of the peloton would be close to the minimum,” he said, clarifying that he is also including the Pro Continental teams in that calculation. “With Topsport Vlaanderen, for example, everyone rides for the minimum wage, or close to the minimum wage.

“If you look at WorldTour riders only, I would say it is between five and 10 percent.”

Given the difficulty of the sport and the amount of time away from home, that’s a sobering reality.

The next level

Looking past those riders, the salary ranges understandably link to ability, results and potential. Sommer said that domestiques who only ride for others and never win won’t make a large salary, but that things can be different for more successful helpers.

In fact, he estimates that the very top domestiques can even make 300,000-400,000 euros (AUD$450,000 to AUD$600,000). In other words, riders who could probably win on other teams but who have accepted a supporting role for the champions of the sport.

De Geyter is more reluctant to provide an estimate of salaries, both at this level and beyond. He said that there are many complex factors at play and because of that, predicting what certain riders are on is difficult to do.

“The big problem with numbers is that it all depends on various things. Nationality is an important thing, for example: if you are a good French domestique and French teams need you, then you are worth more than if you were a Lithuanian domestique,” he explained.

“Then there’s the type of helper to consider. You could be a domestique who is a good leadout, or a domestique in the mountains. If you are the latter, then it depends on how long you can stay up there in the mountains. It is really hard to say what each gets.

“From a certain perspective, Richie Porte is a domestique. What guys like him are making is very different than what the guys who can do the first 100 kilometres, as you can imagine.”
TDFR 2014 - stage -14

Once in a lifetime moment versus upwards trend

Looking at riders who top the podiums, salaries unsurprisingly exceed those of the helpers. However there is considerable variation there too.

For Classic winners, Sommer makes the distinction between races such as Paris-Roubaix, the Ronde van Vlaanderen or Milan-Sanremo and with others such as Il Lombardia and the Clasica San Sebastian. His suggestion is that winners of the first three events will make more than those who triumph in other Classics.

Asked to provide a ballpark figure for a Roubaix win, he believes that domestiques who have a breakthrough win in the race could end up making more than 300,000 euro (AUD$450,000) in their next contract.

For those who win the race but also podium in an event such as Flanders, plus also take a stream of solid top-ten finishes in other one-day races, he suggests the salary could end up exceeding half a million euro per year.

The difference is what is possibly a once-off win in the first case versus a trend in the second. What are the chances the rider will equal or better the performance the following season? This is a crucial consideration for teams and one that is very much taken into account when negotiating salaries.

Grand Tour stages versus Classics

Interestingly, Sommer said that taking a Classic will often earn a rider more than winning a Grand Tour stage, even victory on a stage of the Tour de France. The reason? The far greater odds that an outsider could scoop victory on a single day in a stage race.

“Let’s take the example of a breakaway win,” he explained. “Let’s say in 20 Tour de France stages, there are three or four which are decided from a breakaway as the peloton says it is not important for GC that the break is caught. People will have a chance there who probably don’t have a chance in a Classic.

Peter Sagan is one of the top earners in the sport. Thrice a winner of the Tour's Green Jersey, he is expected to challenge for big Classic wins next season.
Peter Sagan is one of the top earners in the sport. Thrice a winner of the Tour’s Green Jersey, he is expected to challenge for big Classic wins next season.

“For a Classic, I would say an early breakaway group will win it maybe one out of 40 times. In a Grand Tour, the percentage will be much higher. I would say salary wise, it is better to win a Classic than a Grand Tour stage. But then again, if you win a mountaintop finish in the Tour de France and it wasn’t a breakaway but you beat all of the other good climbers, then it is another story. You have to differentiate between the stage wins.”

Sommer also says it’s vital to differentiate between the Grand Tours in question. He said that there is no guarantee that a winner of a breakaway stage in the Vuelta will get a big contract the following season. Of course, the time of year might also be a factor in that, given that many team places are allocated already by the time the Vuelta is held.

Things are very different for those who beat the general classification riders to win a mountain stage in the Tour. Sommer said that he would be ‘very surprised’ if a six figure sum wasn’t the result. In fact, he said that a young rider coming through and beating the big guns head to head would likely make 250,000 to 300,000 euro (AUD$375,000 to AUD$450,000) the following season, if not more.

The logic is interesting: it’s not just down to the achievement, and the prospects of doing something similar again, but also due to what such a victory signifies.

“If you win a mountain top finish against the best riders in the world, it means you have the potential to out-climb the best guys,” he said. “That normally gives you the potential to do well in a Grand Tour yourself in GC one day if you haven’t done so already.”

Momentum as a consideration

Both Sommer and De Geyter are very clear that momentum is a big factor in a rider’s value. Is his career on the up and likely to continue in that direction? Is he already at his peak? Is he perhaps taking a victory that is based in part on good fortune and opportune timing? That kind of assessment is a major consideration in setting his worth.

“If that rider is Tom Boonen, it doesn’t really make too much difference any more as he is already on a big level,” De Geyter said. “If you have a domestique who wins a stage in the Tour, once again it depends; if he is 34 years old, I am not sure that is going to such a big influence on his price.

“However if he is 22 years old, then of course teams are going to see the potential of that guy and will be willing to pay more money for him.”

However De Geyter repeatedly underlined that there are no figures set in stone. “It is not like there is a menu saying a stage win in the Tour de France is worth 500 thousand, a stage win in the Giro or the Vuelta, 350. There is not a thing like that, because every situation is a bit different.

“You can see really good riders who end up in a hard position to get a contract. If I said at the start of the season that certain riders would have difficult getting a deal or being only paid so much, you wouldn’t have believed it, but now with some riders it’s the case.

“Take Jan Bakelants as an example. He won a stage in the 2013 Tour de France, but in the end he had to beg for a spot on Patrick Lefevere’s team. That clearly shows there are no guarantees.

“He won a stage, he wore the yellow jersey and he was a national hero in the Belgium, but at the end of the day he didn’t get what he should have got.”

The example of Chris Horner is another to consider. Despite winning the 2013 Vuelta a España, he has been left scrapping for a contract at the end of the past two seasons. His age is undoubtedly a factor, but image is also an influence too. Some teams appear to have been nervous of a rider who hit his best-ever form in his 40s.

General classification challengers and the top sprinters

Both agents are clear where the big money is: the GC challengers in the Tour de France, and also the riders who can regularly win Grand Tour stages such as Marcel Kittel or Mark Cavendish. De Geyter said that those earning more than a million euro per year (AUD$1,500,000) fit into this category, as do some of those he describes as ‘fantastic Classic riders.’

Sommer recognises three types of riders in this top group of earners. “To get a million or more as a sprinter, you have to be one of the constantly winning riders in the world, delivering guaranteed victories throughout the whole year.

“If you are a Classic rider, the team has to be able to say, ‘okay, this guy is either going to win me a Classic every year, or if he has a bad year he is going to end up on the podium two or three times.’

“The third category is those going for the podium of the Tour de France or the Giro. All of those guys make seven figures. It is hard to earn that if you are not in one of those categories.”

Tour de France winners Alberto Contador and Chris Froome command some of the top salaries in cycling.
Tour de France winners Alberto Contador and Chris Froome command some of the top salaries in cycling.

Talking to the two, they underline repeatedly that looking for an ‘X earns Y’ equation is overly simplistic. There are many factors at play and these make an impact on both a rider’s desirability to a team and also what cash is available.

“The first thing is nationality. That is really important,” said De Geyter. “The second thing, next to nationality, is the age. What potential does he still have?

“Image is also important. You also have to consider the time of year. How many places are still available on teams, and what budget do they have?

He said there another more random consideration; something which could be regarded as an X Factor. “We have something that we call in our office the flavour of the season. The guy that suddenly everyone is after.

“If you have a couple of teams after a rider, then that has a big influence on his value.”

Of course, the agent himself also has a big role to play. His job is to find the best home for his rider, but also to maximise his value. That requires an instinct for when to move and when to wait.

“The main thing in contract negotiation is to see where your momentum is,” De Geyter said. “Where is the right moment to close the deal? Get that right, and that is when you get the most money out of it.”

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