How much money do professional cyclists make?
Cycling is one of the most gruelling and spectacular of professional sports, pushing riders to their physical limits in nail-biting sprints, death-defying descents and asphyxiating climbs.
You’d kinda hope, then, that the reward would match the risk.
Is this really the case, though? Let’s dive into the figures and take a look at how much money professional cyclists make.
Structure of the sport
Professional cycling has a somewhat complicated structure, with several different tiers that in turn inform the minimum wages that riders are entitled to.
On the men’s side of the sport, there are currently three different tiers of professionalism: WorldTeams (formerly known as ‘ProTeams’), ProTeams (formerly known as ‘Pro-Continental’), and Continental (formerly known as, uh, ‘Continental’).
WorldTeams are the top tier of the sport – the teams that get automatic entry to every race on the WorldTour calendar, including Grand Tours like the Tour de France, which is what the sponsors really want.
In 2021, there are 19 WorldTeams, sponsored by a fascinating hodge-podge of industries:
- Ag2r Citroën
- Astana–Premier Tech
- EF Education–Nippo
- Ineos Grenadiers
- Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert Matériaux
- Israel Start-Up Nation
- Movistar Team
- Bahrain Victorious
- Qhubeka Assos
- UAE Team Emirates
This year, there are a further 19 ProTeams, each jostling for invitations to the biggest races on the calendar. The top couple of teams will gain entry to most of their high-profile target races, while the more obscure ones will be hoping to make a strong showing in regional races that will give their sponsors a return on their marketing investment.
Among these 19 ProTeams, there are names that you’ll probably have heard of (like Team TotalEnergies, Nairo Quintana’s team Arkea-Samsic, the recently resuscitated Euskaltel-Euskadi, or Mathieu van der Poel’s team Alpecin-Fenix) and some that you possibly haven’t (hi, Vini Zabu-Brado-KTM! How’s it going, Bingoal Pauwels Sauces WB!)
And then, we get down to the 162 teams making up the Continental tier. There’s a broad spectrum of professionalism in the mix here, ranging from WorldTeam development teams all the way down from there. Some, like Hagens Berman Axeon or L39ION of Los Angeles, you’ll likely have heard of. Most of the others you won’t have (for example, Dukla Banska Bystrica or Radio Popular – Boavista, to choose two that have tickled my fancy today).
Some of these riders will be on a living wage, but most will be supplementing their income wholly or in part with other jobs.
You can look up all the teams and riders for 2021 here.
So, how much do male pro riders make?
Now that we’ve diligently done our homework laying out the different tiers of the sport, we can dive into the salaries that riders at each of the levels can make.
Predictably, there’s a wide spectrum in the earnings of male WorldTeam riders. The stars of the sport take home multiples of the wage of the neo-pros and domestiques – although compared to many other major sports, there’s a smaller gap between the high and low end.
Professional cyclists can choose whether to be self-employed independent contractors, or full-blown employees of a team, effectively choosing between more money in the pocket (self-employed) versus other benefits, like insurance and holidays (employee). In 2021, there’s a minimum salary for male WorldTeam riders of €40,045 (employed) or €65,673 (self-employed).
Contract negotiations in cycling are notoriously secretive, especially compared to sports like football and basketball where it’s all out in the open. In fact, minimum wages are the only thing that’s actually required to be declared and set in stone, although well-sourced media can speculate with reasonable certainty on the approximate wages of different levels of riders.
A reliable domestique stands to make at least double the minimum wage, with most pocketing between €100,000–€400,000. This tier of riders likely includes the likes of Tim Declercq, Roger Kluge, and Michael Mørkøv; athletes that seldom win for themselves but play an invaluable role in helping the star riders of the team take home the flowers.
Individual results, rather than consistent performances for the glory of the team, also play a major role in the wage a rider makes. Classics victories and Grand Tour stage wins are a significant bargaining chip – both in upping the salary with an existing team for the next contract, and in enticing other offers.
A good example of this is Marc Hirschi. In his breakthrough 2020 season, riding for Team Sunweb, the Swiss up-and-comer was reportedly making a wage of €70,000. After several prominent performances at the 2020 Tour de France – including a gutsy stage win on stage 12 – Hirschi went on to finish third at the World Championships, win La Flèche Wallone, and take second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He was subsequently poached by UAE Team Emirates mid-contract, and for 2021 is reportedly on a contract worth around €1 million – 14 times what he was earning at Sunweb.
What about the really big names?
The next tier above the valued domestiques and the break-out stars are the superstars of the sport – the household names. While exact figures are scarce, Peter Sagan and Chris Froome are widely regarded as the best-paid riders in the world. That’s reflective of both their results and their marketability.
According to l’Equipe, Chris Froome is on a €5.5 million contract at Israel Start-Up Nation for 2021, with Sagan hot on his heels at €5 million at Bora-Hansgrohe. Tadej Pogacar is also reportedly thereabouts, while a step down are the likes of Geraint Thomas (€3.5 million) and Egan Bernal (€2.8 million).
One of the best-paid super-domestiques of the sport – and a former world champion – is Michal Kwiatkowski (a reported €2.5 million), while Primoz Roglic, Thibaut Pinot, Vincenzo Nibali and Romain Bardet are all reportedly sitting around the €2 million mark.
There’s also the matter of endorsement deals – which may or may not factor into the figures outlined above. Peter Sagan, for example, is widely assumed to have a personal deal with Specialized – although Specialized declined to comment to questions about this from CyclingTips, citing athlete confidentiality. Julian Alaphilippe’s reported €2.3 million salary, meanwhile, probably doesn’t have a line-item for the €100,000 carbon-composite and titanium watch he straps on whenever he heads out for a spin.
Riders can also pocket appearance fees at specific races, both big and small. Chris Froome reportedly earned €1.4 million for lining up at the 2018 Giro d’Italia – negotiated via Team Sky – a fact that caused some consternation at the time. On a similar note, Lance Armstrong personally pocketed AU$1.5 million to contest the 2009 Tour Down Under.
ProTeam and Continental wages
Compared to the gap between WorldTeam stars and their domestiques, there’s an even greater disparity between wages at the ProTeam level, where squads typically consist of one or two superstar riders backed by a more anonymous supporting cast.
Take Arkea-Samsic, for instance. The French ProTeam has a rumoured budget around €10 million – a hefty chunk of which goes to its marquee rider, Nairo Quintana, who reportedly pockets €1.9 million. The minimum wage-earners at the ProTeam level, meanwhile, are taking home around €31,000 – with neo-pros making even less.
At the Continental level, there’s no minimum wage – meaning that of the 162 teams plying their trade around the world, there are a lot of cyclists riding for free. UCI regulations state that Continental teams have to cover expenses like bikes and kit, but not a wage.
Depending on what country the team is registered in, however, there may be additional requirements. A French Continental rider must receive a minimum wage due to employment laws, while in Belgium there are three different sub-categories of Continental level teams, each with their own financial rules.
What about the women?
As recently as 2017, almost half of the women’s peloton was racing for less than €5,000 a year, and 17.5% were going completely unpaid. Against a backdrop of growing discontent, it was only in 2020 that UCI reforms really pushed the topic of women’s minimum wages to the fore.
As part of these reforms, two tiers emerged in 2020 – UCI WorldTeams and UCI Women’s Continental Teams – replacing the single division of 46 UCI Women’s Teams that had previously existed.
There are nine Women’s WorldTeams in 2021 – a figure that is permitted to grow to a maximum of 15 in 2022. These teams are among the most professional on the women’s side of the sport, and have committed to a number of measures in relation to maximum race days, a team doctor, and a minimum wage for the riders. The current Women’s WorldTeams are:
- Alé BTC Ljubljana
- FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope
- SD Worx
Women’s WorldTeam wages
Despite the fact there’s now a ‘WorldTeam’ designation in the women’s peloton, however, the closest financial parallels are with the men’s ProTeam and Continental teams. Women’s WorldTeams operate on a smaller budget, with smaller rosters and fewer race days compared to the men’s equivalent.
Women’s WorldTeams – which like their male counterparts receive automatic invitations to the top races on the calendar – have all committed to paying a minimum wage to their riders. For 2021, that means there’s a base salary of €20,000 (employed) or €32,800 (self-employed), which will jump up to €27,000 (employed) or €45,100 (self-employed) in 2022.
Along with the establishment of a minimum wage has been the introduction of rules around holiday pay, sickness cover, and maternity cover – all of which were absent in 2019.
The ultimate objective of the UCI’s pay reforms is to have female WorldTeam riders earning the same minimum wage as men’s ProTeam (second tier) riders by 2023.
Some teams have already gone above and beyond that, however: both BikeExchange and Trek-Segafredo have voluntarily increased their minimum salaries on the women’s side to be the same as the men’s WorldTeam (top tier) minimum.
While this is to be applauded, there’s still an enormous divide between what most men’s and women’s WorldTeam riders earn, and a further chasm between the comparatively well-paid women’s WorldTeam riders and the women’s Continental teams. A 2020 survey conducted by the Cyclist’s Alliance found that while wages were up for top female riders, 43% of riders were still actually reimbursing their trade teams for expenses like equipment, medical, or travel costs.
The stats that perhaps best illustrate the hidden divide in the women’s peloton are these:
- 25.5% of professional riders were earning more than €30,000 a year in 2020
- 25% were earning nothing at all
As for that list of best-paid riders published by l’Equipe? It speaks volumes that not one female rider cracks the top 20. Annemiek van Vleuten’s wage at Mitchelton-Scott in 2020 was €125,000 and it has been reported that she doubled that for 2021 when she moved to Movistar.
And while that’s not bad, it’s also a long way short of pay equity, given her formidable palmares.