The Secret Pro: Greedy rider agents, Cavendish’s comeback, and rider safety

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I know it’s been a good little while since I last posted, but you’ve got to cut me some slack. I’ve been busy racing, resting and training, not necessarily in that order. Racing has been stupidly fast and furious, just like last year, with it still turned up to 11, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon. But more on that later.

I thought I’d kick things off for this edition by looking at how the rider agent business works within the sport. After all, these are the people who have our own best interests at heart, at all times. The people that help keep us in work.

For those that are unaware of the dealings that usually go on in the sport, we riders have agents just like in any other professional sport. These “hard-working” individuals are there for us, 100%, obviously with one singular goal: to negotiate a new contract, ideally getting a place on a team roster that is ideal for the rider and the team. A perfect marriage. This also goes hand in hand with getting a healthy paycheck, hopefully. Of course, they wouldn’t be getting anything out of these deals, would they?

It’s no surprise that an agent takes a cut of our contract; they’ve got the contacts and the skills to negotiate the best deal (we hope), but that also means negotiating an excellent deal for themselves. Usually, it’s somewhere in the region of 5-8% of our salary. A healthy chunk of cash if you have a good list of riders on your books. But that’s not always enough for them. And this is where the occasional backhander comes in to play; it’s very much a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours situation when agents and team managers get together.

Generally speaking, some agents have close ties with specific teams where they have a successful working history, and this is typically where these backhanders happen, time and time again.

It might be a package deal. For instance, “take rider X (usually a big name) and get rider Y at a knockdown price, plus, to sweeten the deal, we’ll work something out under the table that benefits the two of us.” Us riders get a contract, they get a cut out of our paycheck and that little extra for their retirement fund. It’s no surprise that where there’s big money changing hands, there’s always a little extra that’ll get siphoned off. 

That’s just the start of it. More recently, we’ve seen abnormally long contracts signed by promising young talents. Remco Evenepoel at Deceuninck-QuickStep and Tadej Pogačar at UAE-Team Emirates are prime examples, with both now signed up until the end of 2026. These long contracts are a relatively new phenomenon, and it’s partly down to rider data (more on that in a sec).

While we’re on the subject of hard-working agents, let us deal with the money side of things. I’m not saying all agents are only out for themselves, but for an agent who strikes a multi-year contract, it firstly means a nice big payday, and then little worry or hard work for five years or however long that massive contract is for. They’ve made their money and now only need to keep the talent happy. There’s no hassle of shopping them around in future seasons, worrying about a fluctuating market.

Compare that to a workhorse rider who doesn’t get the results but is part of the backbone of a team. An agent will spend more time shopping them around every year or two and not making anywhere near the money they did with that one-off deal. 

Just look at Julien Vermote. In 2020 he was with Cofidis on a one-year deal. This year he didn’t pick a contract up until April, and this is a guy who you’d think any self-respecting team would want on its roster as a solid domestique. I have to congratulate Alpecin-Fenix for picking him up; I’m guessing at a knockdown price. 

So what’s happened there? Well, it’s teams and agents looking for that next big payday via data. And that’s part of what drives the teams now. If you’ve got the right power numbers, you’ll more than likely get renewed or picked up. Have big numbers at an U23 or even junior level, and you’ll have an agent shopping you around well before what used to be the showcase for talent: the Tour de l’Avenir. 

Not so long back, the “Tour of the Future” was where U23 riders shone; teams would do their shopping there. Not so much now. The race is still prestigious, but riders with the right numbers will have been snapped up well in advance of the French stage race.

Teams are scared to miss out on the next big thing; these kids with big numbers will be offered a contract before they’ve even shown what they are capable of in races. This pushes out guys who don’t win, who may be a bit old-school but know how to race. 

We must remember that impressive numbers on your power meter don’t always make for a winner. Take Mark Cavendish. Back when he started at British Cycling as a youthful chubby lad, he was nearly dropped by the federation as his numbers weren’t anything to write home about. You do wonder what his path would have been if someone at BC hadn’t been paying attention to him racing and instead just stared at his sheet of paper. I’m sure his numbers are startling now, maybe not Mathieu van der Poel startling, but still impressive. 

Talking of Cavendish, how great is it seeing him back at the front of a race and winning? Four stage wins in Turkey! And yes, I hear you shout, “but it’s not a World Tour event”. Well, pipe down. I’m going to come to that in a moment. 

It’s wonderful for him and his team, obviously, but it’s also a massive boon for the sport. Cycling needs all the positive publicity it can get, and Cav’s wins delivered that. Even after having a few shocking seasons he’s still one of the biggest names in the sport, and him winning four stages threw cycling into the headlines again in the most positive way possible. There was no outlet I saw that wasn’t pleased to see him atop a podium again. On top of that, it also shows that you shouldn’t write off the old (or oldish) guard. Class is class!

Now, for all you Negative Nancys saying, “but The Tour of Turkey is only a UCI 2.Pro – big deal” well, hush up! Every race is hard; what was once a lowly 2.1 is being raced as if it’s a WorldTour event. UCI points are the be-all and end-all of what riders and teams are after. If you’ve not got the power numbers, a lovely haul of UCI points will see you right when it comes time to negotiate a team contract. 

Where there’s points, there are prizes, and that makes for hard racing. It’s getting faster and more savage every year, and more so after 2020’s messy season. It’s been going this way for a few years now. Speeds have increased, but 2020 just lit the fuse to a whole new level. I can’t see things ever returning to the way races once ran.

There are no easy races now. You’ve got to be race-fit at every event now. For me, if I turn up, do my job well, I’ll then be in a fortunate place where my team will at least leave me alone to do the training I want.

If I’m brutally honest, COVID hasn’t caused too many problems so far, or at least for the races I’ve lined up for. Then again, I’ve not lined up for many races in France this year. As for the team, everything seems slickly organised, and no one is taking any risks.

What is annoying me, though, is riders getting grumbly on Twitter, moaning about not being allowed to race when they’ve had a positive test, then a day later a negative test. I’m no scientist, hence why I took up this job, but surely there’s still a chance the negative result you received from the second test is wrong and that the first false-positive is right. Let’s keep things safe and err on the side of caution at all times, or we’re going to have a season similar to last year. Suck it up, get off Twitter, and prepare for your next race. It’s not that hard. 

Now, last time I was putting together an article, I welcomed the new UCI rules on safety. But I may have had a bit of a turnaround in mindset since then. Not a total 360, but I’ve now had a bit more time to mull it over and see how things have been implemented at races. I may have been a bit hasty in my initial view. 

Firstly it’s far from a surprise that I agree with everyone that if you’re lobbing a bottle (gently) at a fan who wants it, getting the boot from a race is just crazy. Especially if you’re at the back of a race and slow to do it. It’s nice to see the rules have been slightly amended, but those first few disqualifications were just dumb. We will see how things pan out.

As for the safety of riders when it comes to the invisible aero bars and supertucks, I think the Tour of the Alps proved my point: the UCI spent all their lockdown time just picking on the easy stuff to make our sport (look) safer. The closing kilometres of stage 1 of the Tour of the Alps just showed how far we’ve still to go to get the fundamental safety issues sorted.

It was insane – a supposed sprint stage (upset by Giannni Moscon) had cars scattered everywhere in the final kilometres. It was like the organisers had closed all the local car parks and encouraged everyone to park in the street. Dodging the parked cars and road furniture at the speeds we race at was like the higher levels of Tetris. Just more dangerous and more stressful. 

On a slightly positive note, how impressive has Tom Pidcock been? What a talent to come into the WorldTour and straight away – at the age of 21 – be one of the hitters at the Classics. As for that photo finish at Amstel Gold, well, firstly, I think the UCI and race organisers need to know how to paint a perfectly straight line and then also how to line a camera up. 

In all honesty, I can’t see why it couldn’t have been a dead heat. We’ve seen it before. Back in 2016 at the Tour of Korea there was a dead heat, and before that at the U23 worlds in 2010 for bronze. I’m sure it must have happened in track cycling too. It’s not like they would have had to squeeze both riders into one leader’s jersey. 

OK, I think that’s about it from me this time around. It’s time to get out into the glorious sunshine we’re having, chill out after ranting for 2,000 words, and get ready for the next race. 

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