Men’s road transfer season, analysed: Three good fits, three questionable moves
Now that most of the marquee signings are in the books for this transfer season, it’s a great time to take a closer look at how the big names could fit in with their new squads. After all, the chance to critique big-money decisions knowing only some of the full context and with several months still to go before the season begins is what makes transfer season so fun.
Setting pro road cycling apart from other pro sports is a glaring lack of public information about rider salaries. When an American football team signs a quarterback, for instance, the whole world gets to see how much money will change hands in the coming years. That gives sportswriters the info they need to gleefully lambast the team for spending too much money. Not so in the world of cycling.
For the most part, we don’t know exactly how much this or that rider earns. That makes it harder to praise or critique teams for over-spending or for getting a great deal. What we can do, however, is evaluate whether a transfer seems likely to fit into the new roster and the objectives likely to be laid out in the coming season.
At least right now, a long way out from the start of the 2020 WorldTour road calendar, a few big deals do stand out as great fits … while others look like head-scratchers.
Three good fits
Enric Mas to Movistar
It’s kind of surprising that Mas has not already been racing for Movistar for years. The 24-year-old Spaniard is a stage racing specialist whose biggest career result so far has been a runner-up ride at the Vuelta a España. In other words, he will make a great standard-bearer for the WorldTour’s lone Spanish squad.
That goes beyond simply his nationality, by the way. Mas, who has spent the past three years as one of the few Grand Tour specialists on a largely Classics-focused Deceuninck-QuickStep team, is young and has plenty of room to grow. Just the same, he already has a Grand Tour podium under his belt. Movistar is in sore need of a new stage racing star, with both Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa moving on next year. Mas will have his opportunities to shine.
Considering the team’s high profile, there may be a bit of pressure to perform, but Mas will be in a good position to succeed surrounded by Movistar’s always-strong supporting cast.
Mark Cavendish to Bahrain-Merida
Before giving too much praise to Bahrain-Merida here, I’ll reiterate that this is about fit, not about value. Cavendish very well could have cost the team far more money than is reasonable at this point at his career, but without knowing, we can only evaluate the fit — and it seems like a good one.
It’s been a rough three years for Cavendish, whose great start with Dimension Data gave way to several frustrating seasons. Illness and injury played a large role, but it’s fair to wonder how much of a contender even a healthy Cavendish can be now. At Bahrain-Merida, he is reunited with Rod Ellingworth, who worked with Cavendish in his hugely successful early years. That partnership seems as likely as any Cavendish would have found in the WorldTour to bring him back to a competitive level.
What’s more, Bahrain-Merida’s roster has an opening for a pure speedster like Cavendish. The team has plenty of strong domestiques but no real marquee winner for the bunch sprints, with Sonny Colbrelli best suited for the hillier stages. In other words, there should be no shortage of chances for Cavendish to find his feet.
Dan Martin to Israel Cycling Academy
At first glance, the surprising news of Dan Martin’s decision to leave UAE-Team Emirates for Israel Cycling Academy did induce some head-scratching. It sounded like an odd move for Martin to make at first, but upon further review, and with Israel Cycling Academy set to move up to the WorldTour next year, there are reasons to believe Martin can slot in nicely.
Beyond the fact that he’s a marketable rider with plenty of panache, Martin’s skill set is well-tailored to the kinds of goals that Israel Cycling Academy should be targeting. The former Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner excels as a contender in one-day and one-week races and as a stage-hunter in the Grand Tours. His recent attempts to focus on GC in the Grand Tours, however, have come with mixed results. He delivered three straight Tour de France top 10s between 2016 and 2018 but never came particularly close to battling for the win.
At his new team, Martin will have plenty of room to target the races that suit him best. He won’t have the kind of domestique firepower around him required to make a run at a Tour win, but that’s fine — nobody will expect that of him. Instead, he can focus on trying to nab a one-week race win here or a Grand Tour stage victory there. Those are attainable goals for Israel Cycling Academy, and they will also help prove that the team can be in the mix at the top division.
Three question marks
Richard Carapaz to Ineos
Fresh off a breakout season that saw him establish himself as a Grand Tour winner, Richard Carapaz signed with … a team that already has three Grand Tour winners.
At most other squads in the WorldTour, Carapaz would go into 2020 as a clear leader in at least one three-week race. With Ineos, that’s not really a given. He could end up as a co-leader wherever he goes next year. That worked out for him at the Giro d’Italia with Movistar, but a strong all-rounder in his athletic prime coming off a Grand Tour win would normally expect an undisputed leadership nod going forward.
Hopefully, Ineos will find a way to juggle the aspirations of all the team’s big names, but that will be a tall order with only so many races to go around. What’s more, Ineos is losing Wout Poels, Kenny Elissonde, and David de la Cruz, and will be looking to fill those domestique roles with new names. If Carapaz struggles even in the slightest, he could be relegated to the role of glorified support rider.
You have to feel for the growing fanbase in Ecuador, whose new star could very quickly find himself a super-domestique for the next few years.
Philippe Gilbert to Lotto-Soudal
On the surface, it makes plenty of sense that Philippe Gilbert would want to head back to the Lotto-Soudal organization where he enjoyed success early in his career, but it’s hard to imagine things working out quite as well in his new-old digs as they have at Deceuninck-Quick-Step.
Signing with Patrick Lefevere’s team after a stretch with BMC that had many assuming he was past his prime, Gilbert went on to win two Monuments in the last three years. That’s largely down to his own talents and his transformation into a Cobbled Classics specialist, but it has sure helped having the likes of Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert taking some of the attention of rival teams at every race. As one of a large cast of star attackers, Gilbert could afford to go for broke with long-range moves.
Gilbert will be the clear top option for the Cobbled Classics in his new team. Whether he can thrive in that role at this age remains to be seen. Away from the cobbles, Gilbert has made no secret of his desire to win Milano-Sanremo, the one Monument that is not yet on his career palmares — but that will be a tall order too. He’ll be fighting an uphill battle to secure leadership within his own team there — the race is a huge target for Caleb Ewan, who scored runner-up honors in 2018. New teammate John Degenkolb is a former winner too.
Frankly, it seems unlikely that Gilbert’s decision to leave will yield better results for him in any of his big objectives. Buying into that for a full three seasons when Gilbert is already 37 is a pretty big risk for Lotto-Soudal to take.
Nairo Quintana to Arkéa-Samsic
Five years ago, it seemed like Nairo Quintana was destined to be Colombia’s first Tour de France winner, but obviously things have changed since then. Still, he’s only 29, so it’s a bit strange to see him stepping down to the Pro Continental level.
With numerous one-week victories and overall titles at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España already under his belt, Quintana really only has the Tour left as a major career target. Arkéa-Samsic doesn’t seem like a great place for him to pursue that goal.
Quintana dealt with enough leadership squabbles at Movistar, and he joins a roster at Arkéa that will present some potential for more uncertainty. The French Pro Continental team will surely want to keep giving French climber Warren Barguil opportunities. Nacer Bouhanni, who seems to attract drama, is also coming on board next year. And even if everyone works together harmoniously, it’s not as if Arkéa-Samsic has the domestique firepower to back a bona fide Grand Tour GC bid.
Perhaps Quintana will elevate Arkéa to (much) loftier heights than we’ve seen so far, but it sure feels like he would have been better set up for success at one of the many middle-of-the-pack WorldTour squads with a bit more of the infrastructure necessary to help a rider with his track record get back to winning ways.