Continental Drift: The Gap in ‘Pro’ Cycling
How do you define a professional athlete?
How do you define a professional athlete?
Aspiring pro Joe Laverick is fighting his way toward a big-time contract and will be sending over columns throughout the season. Riding for Axeon-Hagens Berman this year, Joe has a unique viewpoint on the pathways and roadblocks into the pro ranks. In this installment, he considers how we really should define ‘pro.’
How do you define a professional athlete? Is it by ability, results, team, or paycheck? If you’re in the top 1% of pro cyclists, you can earn millions of euros and afford to count your kudos in the tax haven of Monaco. The top 1% have it good. But, what’s it like as you work your way up the slippery ladder? Where and how do the lower rungs fit in?
As per the UCI guidelines, there are three divisions: WorldTeams, ProTeams, and Continental Teams. The more common terms are WorldTour, ProConti and Conti, respectively. I’ll be using the latter throughout this article.
Each division has different requirements and benefits, from a minimum rider wage to access to a race calendar. At the bottom of the pro-cycling pile, there are the Continental teams. Continental teams are strange. You can be racing Chris Froome one weekend, and Chris the local fourth cat the next.
I’m a Continental-level cyclist myself. In cycling circles, I don’t class myself as pro, yet. That’s reserved for ProConti and WorldTour. Granted, it is much easier to describe myself as a pro when I’m talking to a family friend who doesn’t understand the sport. In my eyes, I’m a full-time cyclist, but I’m semi-professional.
In the World Tour, team budgets can range from €4-50 million per year. I did a little bit of digging and on the British Continental scene, one team is said to have a budget of between £60-100,000 per annum.
John Herety is a legend of the British racing scene, a former British national road champion, and then a long-time team manager. He started off managing Recycling.co.uk in 2006 on a budget of around £85,000. The team became Rapha-Condor Sharp and then JLT Condor. The contract with their final title sponsor was worth around £700,000 per year.
Sponsorship agreements are fickle. They’re often just a single year and provide no security. A Continental team can only theoretically guarantee their license for a year too, due to the UCI regulation of annual renewals. What comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Herety said that one of his proudest moments in his 12-year spell as a team boss was securing a deal with their final title sponsor. The agreement with JLT, an insurance firm, lasted for three years. It gave the team security that is unheard of at Conti level. Team security means that you can sign riders to multi-year contracts and plan for the future. In other sports, this is a given. In cycling, it’s a game changer.
I asked Herety, who’s currently out of the pro-cycling game, a frank question: “How much would it take for you to come back?” His answer: “Minimum, £150,000.” He told me that you could have a very successful Continental team for £250,000, while wages wouldn’t be possible in that budget, it would be built around ambitious young pros racing an exciting calendar.
The American-registered Hagens Berman Axeon, my current team, had a high-profile sponsor search at the back end of 2020. Axel Merckx, the team manager, was said to be around US$300,000 short on the budget he needed.
The team is still on the road in 2021 with Hagens Berman, a class action law firm, entering their sixth season as title sponsor. Remember what I said about multi-year sponsor deals being game changing? Team’s like Merckx’s wouldn’t be around without sponsors like Hagens Berman.
Merckx’s team has a strong pedigree of developing quality riders and they always provide top value for sponsors too. Such as with Neon Adventures, a sponsor that has signed multi-year deals in past; Axel + Neon = Axeon.
It does make you question: If Hagens Berman Axeon were struggling for money, what hope do others have?
If we look at men’s WorldTour teams, the minimum salary is around €40,000. At ProConti level, it’s approximately €31,000. These figures are less for neo-pros. There isn’t a minimum wage at Conti level. In fact, it’s not uncommon for riders to receive no money at all. Bikes, kit, and expenses all have to be covered as per the UCI regulations, but not a wage.
Conti level cyclists spin many plates. There’s the racing, but then the two or three part-time jobs to make it all viable (although I’m not going to say that writing this with my feet up is causing much stress!). It’s worth me stating that the level of rider on the Conti scene is high, often good enough to make it in the upper echelons of the sport. But are you ‘pro’ if you aren’t paid to do your job?
In the third tier of British professional football (soccer), the average highest earner is on £247,000 per year*, or US$335k. While I know this comparison is futile, due to the obscene amount money in professional football, it does give a reference point.
I couldn’t find any data to give an average wage of a continental rider, but I can safely predict that it’s not quite £247,000. In fact, I recently did an off-the-record survey between my friends racing on the UK Continental scene, it seems that very few, if any riders are paid a wage.
There was a ‘golden age’ for the British Continental scene in the early-mid 2010s. Sponsors had deep pockets and wages went up, one could argue that we’re now struggling through the aftermath. Dean Downing, a former British champion, raced through the good times, he told Cyclist Magazine:
“John Wood, who was behind NFTO, had made a lot of money and he paid very good wages. Endura also came along and pushed the wage bracket up. We were getting paid more than neo-pros on WorldTour teams, which is crazy when you think about it. But that bubble has well and truly burst now.”Dean Downing
What is the value of a rider? On the British scene, value has historically come from being a successful Tour Series rider. These are a number of city centre criteriums that bring TV time. This isn’t too different in the States where there is a strong criterium scene.
Herety said that in his team’s prime, a top Tour Series rider could be making between £25-35,000 per year. Everyone on his team would either get a wage, or reasonable expenses paid. It seemed comical to him that a Continental rider could demand more than the World Tour minimum wage.
UCI Continental team. It’s in the name, they should be racing across the continent. This is a criticism that often gets directed at British teams who choose to stick to a domestic-based calendar.
One could argue that not all Conti teams need their Continental license. Herety believes that there are too many Conti teams in the UK. “Why are we allowing sponsors to get in the Tour of Britain on the cheap?” he asked.
With teams based in the USA, Britain, and Australia, there is the added expense that comes with traveling to the big races that aren’t in their home country. The Continental license gives access to most pro races, but even club teams can race up to the UCI .2 level.
JLT-Condor were trailblazers in Britain. Throughout their iterations, the team won races on three continents. They won the Tour of Korea twice. It’s rare for a European team to race in the Asia Tour, let alone for a British continental team.
They often based themselves in Australia for the first six weeks of the year. A trip which Herety claimed to cost almost a quarter of their annual budget. Why?
It was sponsor-driven at first. Rapha wanted them to race in Asia and then Australia. It had the added bonus that riders can get a good racing block, and the publicity that comes with it, as the UK calendar often doesn’t kick off until March.
The final perk is the attraction to riders. Yes, they could make more money at another team, but they couldn’t have a race calendar like Herety’s. There’s a lot of truth in this, as a rider, one of the first things I do when looking for a new team is look at what calendar they rode for the previous few seasons. As a rider, you want to ride the best races. I’m unbelievably excited for my 2021 calendar, but more to come on that another time.
As previously mentioned, the UCI states that Continental teams do not have to pay riders, they do however have to pay expenses. National governing bodies can add more rules in too.
So, I ask again; how do you define a professional athlete? If you are earning 0 euros per year, can you classify yourself as a pro? It’s a grey area that will never be solved, subject to opinion and context.
There are numerous Continental-level cyclists who are good enough to be WorldTour, many are one good result away from a life-changing contract. What’s clear is there’s a gap, one that feels like it’s widening, between where young riders like me are, and where we want to go.
For those wanting to read more about life at the Continental level of bike racing, ‘Pro Cycling on $10 a day’ by the now retired Phil Gaimon is a great read.