What the biggest transfers mean for the men’s peloton in 2021
Now that even the latest transfer announcements are slowing down (at least until someone else exits a contract early and joins a new team), it seems like a good time to take stock of another intriguing round of comings and goings in the pro peloton.
Transfers tend to make for an entertaining topic for analysis because of all the unknowns – and, sometimes, the drama – that come with a rider heading to new pastures that may or may not be greener. This year’s crop of moves certainly has its fair share of talking points.
While we can never really know which moves will end up being brilliant and which will end up being ill-conceived, even this early in the game we can see the early signs of which transfers look to be good fits, and which are question marks. Abby Mickey took a closer look at some of the big transfers in the women’s peloton, so let’s take a look at the men’s side of things …
Chris Froome (Ineos Grenadiers to Israel Start-Up Nation)
The Chris Froome move seems like an obvious place to start, as it was one of the biggest news items of this transfer season – and for good reason. Froome is a multi-time Grand Tour winner leaving one of the sport’s biggest teams for a relatively new WorldTour team on a “long-term” contract.
That contract will, according to his new squad, “see Froome wear ISN’s blue and white until the end of his illustrious career.” That vague timeline has been reported as a five-year deal, and its supposed length is what transforms this transfer from a perfectly reasonable bet into a big question mark.
It should be noted that because this is cycling and not most other mainstream sports, we don’t actually know the full details of the contract or what Froome will be paid, but assuming he’s locked in for even a decent salary, ISN will be on the hook for quite a long time for a rider that will turn 36 before this year’s Tour, and who has yet to come anywhere close to the form he had before his 2019 crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Even if Froome does turn out to be a Grand Tour contender again, it’s hard to imagine him holding onto that form all that much longer as he enters the second half of his 30s.
In other words, ISN needs a lot of things to go right for this to work out. That said, there are good reasons for the team to have made this pickup, not least the fact that until June 2019, which wasn’t really that long ago, Froome was a Tour favorite. ISN is a team that was racing at the Continental level in 2016 and still at the Pro Conti level in 2019. A signing like this elevates the squad’s profile massively, and it can help attract attention en route to bringing in both talent from the cycling world and sponsor money from outside it.
So maybe Froome won’t have to actually win another Tour to have been worth the signing – although it certainly wouldn’t hurt if he at least found himself in contention in the biggest races over the next few years.
Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates to Qhubeka-Assos)
It’s been a tough few seasons for Fabio Aru, who has not followed up on his 2015 Vuelta a España win with the kinds of results he was hoping for. An iliac artery issue that was operated on in 2019 certainly didn’t help, but by 2020 things seemed to be getting unpleasant at UAE-Team Emirates, where team advisor Giuseppe Saronni publicly expressed his frustrations with Aru at last year’s Tour.
A departure was inevitable, and really, a one-year deal with Qhubeka-Assos seems like a great situation for all involved. Aru will have a golden opportunity to return to his best at a team where competition for GC leadership in big races will be minimal, but so too will expectations.
Meanwhile, Qhubeka-Assos is only committed to the 30-year-old Italian for a single season, and one assumes the squad isn’t paying him all that much. The team picked up Aru late in an unconventional transfer season after it wasn’t clear whether the organization would continue at all; if things don’t work out, Qhubeka-Assos won’t be hamstrung long-term, and can simply go shopping again later this year. But if things do work out with Aru, a team that has spent years near the bottom of the WorldTour rankings will have bought low (again, we assume, as we don’t actually have contract details) on a star climber with some very big results to his name.
Mark Cavendish (Bahrain-McLaren to Deceuninck-QuickStep)
Like Froome and Aru, Mark Cavendish is another question mark for 2021 as it’s been some time since he was putting up the kinds of performances that made him one of cycling’s best-known riders of the past decade. Like Qhubeka-Assos did with Aru, Deceuninck-QuickStep took the measured approach in signing Cavendish to a contract of just one year – but unlike Aru at his new team, I have a hard time seeing a clear role for Cavendish at DQS, unless it’s as a support rider.
The fact of the matter is that Cavendish is going to a team that already has reigning Tour de France points champ, Sam Bennett. Not just him but rising star Álvaro Hodeg and a recovering Fabio Jakobsen, who was emerging as one of the fastest youngsters in the peloton before his crash at the Tour of Poland. Where does Cavendish fit in?
The 35-year-old Manxman will likely have opportunities in the one-week events to show what he can do this year, but unless he really comes through in a big way, its hard to see a team with such a stacked roster carving out space for him as a leader in the biggest races. That said, after years as the clear marquee rider in the sprints on whatever team he rode for, Cavendish seemed willing to play support roles for teammates last year at Bahrain-McLaren.
There’s always the chance he’ll re-find the spark in 2021, so Deceuninck-Quick-Step has little to lose in rolling the dice on a one-year deal (particularly if he’s brought a sponsor along to help pay his wage, as has been suggested).
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC to AG2R Citroën)
Cycling fans would be forgiven for wondering why Classics veteran Greg Van Avermaet might sign with AG2R Citroën, but this squad has quietly put together a great Classics core that Van Avermaet should fit into nicely.
AG2R bids adieu to both Romain Bardet and Pierre Latour this transfer season, but can now boast of a Classics lineup headlined by Van Avermaet, fellow newcomer Bob Jungels, and Oliver Naesen, who is friends and training partners with Van Avermaet. Over the past few seasons, Van Avermaet has often found himself alone late in races, lacking teammates to either chase down attackers or make tactical attacks of their own. That seems unlikely to be the case at the retooled AG2R.
Van Avermaet, Naesen, and Jungels will be formidable contenders in the one-day races and, with each having a slightly different skillset, you could see scenarios where the squad fires Jungels off the front from a ways out at the Tour of Flanders, sends Naesen in the follow-up move in the waning kilometers, and then follows that up with a final push from Van Avermaet. Beyond those big names, the team has also invested in strong domestiques like Michael Schär.
Whether Van Avermaet is option 1A at AG2R for the next few years or more of an ensemble cast member, it’s easy to see him finding success with his new team.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb to BikeExchange)
The first of two early departures from the Sunweb organization this transfer season was Michael Matthews, who has rejoined the BikeExchange team (formerly Mitchelton-Scott) after he and Sunweb agreed to end their relationship one year early. There’s a lot to like about this move for Matthews and his new-old team.
When Matthews left the Orica-BikeExchange team back in 2016, the squad often found itself deciding between riding for Matthews or Simon Gerrans in the hillier races that favored both riders. Since both riders departed, the team has not had a punchy rider of quite that caliber for the hilly Grand Tour stages or one-days. Meanwhile, Matthews was underutilized, to put it mildly, in the past year at Sunweb. He has enjoyed some of the best form of his career over the past two seasons, but Sunweb was planning to leave him out of both its Tour roster and its roster for the biggest Classics, so it’s hard to fault Matthews for wanting out.
He’ll have no shortage of opportunities back at BikeExchange, and the team is getting a talented pro who has looked quite strong recently. He’s also a home rider for the Australian squad with a high profile. Bringing him back on a two-year deal feels like a no-brainer, for rider and team alike.
Marc Hirschi (Sunweb to UAE-Team Emirates)
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: This one is as much a slam dunk for UAE-Team Emirates as it is a headscratcher for DSM (formerly Sunweb). At least with Michael Matthews, you could maybe see why the team would agree to let him go in favor of younger and likely cheaper riders (even if I still think it’s a questionable move for the team). But Hirschi? You’re going to let one of the most promising youngsters in the sport walk a matter of months after he won a Tour stage, finished on the podium at Worlds and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and won La Flèche Wallonne?
We may never know why DSM felt it was wise to bid farewell to Hirschi, but I suppose I should just focus on his new situation, which seems like a good one. UAE has money to spend after Aru’s departure, and a rising star fell into the team’s lap, so is it any surprise they made the move? Hirschi also has to be excited, because UAE is a team that is quickly gaining a reputation for building young talent, and it’s also a team that doesn’t have a logjam of Ardennes-style riders.
Sure, Tadej Pogacar finished just behind Hirschi at Liège in 2020, but both riders can probably coexist considering the fact Pogacar will probably be a bit more heavily focused on winning the Tour. Meanwhile, perhaps Hirschi can put his talents to use helping Pogacar in the stage races whenever necessary.
Hirschi is reportedly getting paid handsomely at his new team (to the tune of over a million Euros a year) so, sure, if his talent suddenly disappears, UAE will be unhappy – but considering his trajectory, this feels like a pretty solid investment.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale to DSM)
Sticking with DSM-related transfers: Romain Bardet to DSM feels like a big question mark.
On the one hand, the notoriously rigid structure of the former Sunweb team may be just what Bardet is looking for after nearly a decade at AG2R. Recent seasons had certainly been disappointing for the 30-year-old Frenchman, who was on back-to-back Tour podiums in 2016 and 2017, and Sunweb has, on and off, had success in the Grand Tours over the past few seasons. On the other hand, he has to be wondering about the environment at his new team considering not one but two high-profile riders have left their contracts early over the past few months.
For DSM, the move is something of a gamble – Bardet just hasn’t been as good recently as he was earlier in his career. On the other hand, he’s still only 30, the team isn’t committed to all that long a contract (two years), and he fills an obvious opening with Wilco Kelderman departing. This could go either way.
Miguel Ángel López (Astana to Movistar)
López’s transfer to Movistar after six years at Astana did not come as a huge surprise, and he should slot in nicely to a team that is in need of rejuvenation in the GC department after Richard Carapaz, Nairo Quintana, and Mikel Landa all departed ahead of the 2020 season. Still just 26, López has room to grow while already having a solid palmares, and he’ll be an obvious choice for a Grand Tour leadership role at Movistar.
López’s aggressive style will be in line with the way Movistar likes to approach racing; hould the team continue to take its multiple leaders approach in Grand Tours this year, López is the sort of rider who could thrive regardless.
Then again, time trials have been a problem for López through the years, and you have to wonder whether Movistar is the team that will see him overcome that challenge. At least recently, Movistar has not been a team known for developing talents against the clock. That’s not set in stone, and this squad has featured strong time trialists and fielded some strong team time trial lineups in the past, so López will hope he can get better in that discipline with his new team if he wants to be a bona fide contender for Grand Tour wins.
Other notable mentions
The biggest Ineos news this past transfer season was the departure of Chris Froome, but the team signed plenty of big names as well. There’s little doubt that the team added a ton of Grand Tour talent along the way. Adam Yates, Daniel Martínez, Laurens De Plus, and Richie Porte represent a pretty massive haul for a team that has made a habit of stockpiling stage racing specialists. It’s hard to fault them for continuing to do so, and at least for De Plus and Porte, the move makes sense.
De Plus goes from being a talented support rider with Jumbo-Visma to likely playing a similar role at Ineos, while Porte is returning to the team he called home for four years as he winds down his career (although, coming off his Tour podium, it would have been cool to see him get another year as a big Grand Tour leader).
The Ineos transfer is a bit more of a question mark for Yates and Martínez, as both would likely have more opportunities elsewhere. That said, a lot can happen in a cycling season, and if Tao Geoghegan Hart can go from support rider to Grand Tour winner in a matter of weeks, maybe they’ll have more opportunities than expected.
In other Ineos transfer news, there’s Tom Pidcock, who joins the WorldTour this year after lighting up the under-23 circuit. This move felt inevitable, and it feels like a good fit. Ineos has obviously had success developing stars, and Pidcock should get opportunities to shine in the Classics while he develops as a stage racer.
Another notable mention in the transfer department is Wilco Kelderman, who looked like a Grand Tour favorite for a few days last October before he ultimately dropped to third overall at the Giro. Considering his success there, Kelderman feels like a strong pickup for Bora-Hansgrohe, which has skillfully added some serious talent over the past few seasons as it has evolved beyond simply being the team of Peter Sagan.
I’ll close it out with a quick look at two other big signings Israel Start-Up Nation made this transfer season besides Chris Froome. Sep Vanmarcke has not had quite the Classics success recently that he had earlier in his career, but he gives ISN a leader for the cobbled Classics, so that’s a need filled nicely. Mike Woods, meanwhile, feels like a very strong pickup, considering all he brings to the table.
Woods can be a contender in his own right, alongside Dan Martin, for the hilly races, and this is a team that could use a rider who took victories in two WorldTour races last year (Tirreno-Adriatico and then the Vuelta a España). At the same time, Woods can also play a strong support role for new signee Chris Froome. Both Woods and Vanmarcke are signed to three-year deals, which aren’t short, but they should give ISN marquee riders to work with for some time yet as the team continues its evolution.