Monday, January 17, 2011
When a National Team is Not a National Team
With the Pegasus ProTour effort not even cold in the grave, the next great Australian ProTour bid has already shot through the birth canal and now lies screaming on the scale, waiting to be weighed. Circle of life, I suppose. Going by the name GreenEDGE (which sounds suspiciously like a Billy Mays cleaning product), the new effort is headed, as predicted, by former Australian track cycling boss Shayne Bannan. And as predicted, it’s already ruffling feathers. Before the team even held its first presser, rumors surfaced that its management was engaging in rider-poaching shenanigans, offering dodgy “pre-contracts” and potentially troublesome UCI-point incentives to Australian riders on its wish list.
I’m not usually one to comment on early rumors, but Jonathan Vaughters, whose young Australian talents Cam Meyer and Jack Bobridge are reportedly on the shopping list, has already responded publicly to the reports. That would be an uncommonly brash public step for the level-headed Vaughters if he didn’t have good reason to believe that they’re true, particularly since everyone in this potential dispute speaks the same language and reads the same media. Vinokourov can probably spout whatever he wants to the Kazakh media in relative safety, but when Vaughters comments on cyclingnews.com, he has to know Bannan’s going to see it. Based on Vaughters taking that step, I have to believe there’s some credence to the story. For his part, here’s Bannan’s response to the poaching allegations.
And so, to the matters at hand…
Does any of this sound familiar: New zero-to-ProTour effort wrapped in a national flag? English-speaking? Headed by the nation’s very successful national track coach? Backed by a national federation and a reliable in-country sponsor? Disregard for the rules and/or courtesies of professional road cycling business operations? Eyeing Vaughters’s goodies?
The GreenEDGE model appears, of course, to be Team Sky all over again. That’s not a groundbreaking thought; plenty of others have said as much, said it better, and said it earlier. What I’m wondering about is to what degree the national track team background shared by Sky’s David Brailsford and GreenEDGE’s Bannan share is the root of the friction both seem to cause in the professional road scene. Simply put, have Brailsford and Bannan (hereafter B+B) tried to build professional road teams the same way they would a national track team? Let’s look at why that might not be the best way to go.
First, there’s the issue of how you approach riders. B+B come from managing federation track programs, where the most relevant information for recruitment isn’t found in a rider’s professional contract, but in his passport. Are they a confirmed Brit or Aussie? Great! Pick up the phone and give them a call! If they want to come ride for god and country, we’ll work out the schedule with their professional team somehow, right? In building their road teams, B+B seem content to continue following that methodology. Confirm the passport and dial, never mind that it’s January, or that riders are tied to multi-year contracts. You’re from the right country – we’ll work it out!
As both men are finding, the professional road scene doesn’t work like that. Though your team may be trying to become the defacto “national” ProTour team, professional road cycling is commercial, not national. Sure, for the rider, riding for the professional “home team” might have patriotic appeal, a fringe benefit like more paid trips home, appealing linguistic familiarity, or better compatibility with management. And for the team, home riders obviously have benefits from the fan interest and sponsorship perspectives. But beyond those warm feelings and on all that white paper printed with rules and contracts, nationality is fairly irrelevant in the ProTour system. (Until you get popped for doping – different story.) Shared nationality between teams and prospective riders affords no special rights and privileges beyond how employing native vs. foreign riders plays out in the applicable labor laws. In leaving the national/federation format and joining the commercial/professional one, B+B need to give up the idea that they have a constitutional right to chat up the top riders from their country, or risk being found in violation of UCI rules. Simply put, native riders like those you coached on the track are no longer “your boys” who you borrow from their road teams from time to time – they’re your competition’s employees. The relationship has changed - acknowledge it.
Yes, for professional teams that rely on a national identity, it can be a real downer when much of the best native talent is contractually tied down. And not having unrestricted access to the whole national talent pool must come as a shock to B+B after their success at honing their nations’ track programs. But if they could look past the horizon a bit, they’d see the upside: that it works both ways. While GreenEDGE might not be able to call home everyone’s Aussies as they please, neither will, say, Rabobank be able to come in and arbitrarily recall any Dutchmen GreenEDGE might employ. It's not a great situation when you're trying to burst out of the starting gate, but it feels a lot better a few years down the road.
On top of those issues of recruitment rules and manners, there’s the relative inexperience in recruiting at all. National track managers do occasionally need to woo riders – for instance, in trying to lure road riders like Wiggins, Cavendish, or O’Grady back to the boards for the Olympics or Commonwealth Games. But much of the time, coaches in big track cycling nations are in the very opposite, very enviable position of being team “selectors” rather than recruiters. Without a vibrant professional scene, the national team system is the only chance for many dedicated trackies to make a relative living at the sport. So for B+B, picking up riders to fill out a team has long been a buyer’s market. Now, faced with the greater competition and elaborate courtship dances of the professional road scene, and forced into the role of suitor of the top talent rather than the suited, they seem unsure of the proper way to make their advances. What’s worse, they don’t seem to care what the right way is.
That’s all just a theory, of course, but one thing is for sure. GreenEDGE’s alleged recruitment tactics might be distasteful, they may even be against the rules, but they can hardly be a surprise. The last 10 years have effectively seen “the rise of the state” in professional cycling. With federation-backed squads proliferating, team managers have to expect that Katusha will come for their Russians, Sky for their Brits, and Astana for any Kazakhs they might have kicking around. And on and on. Cycling Australia's ProTour plans have been known for some time, so if other teams' management hadn’t spoken to their Australians about this eventuality yet, they've been caught with their pants down. You could argue that shouldn't be the case, that expecting people to play by the rules shouldn't mean you're caught out. Unfortunately, in cycling, that's just not realistic.
Other GreenEDGE Notes
- The idea of paying prospective riders for UCI points they accumulate with their 2011 teams is potentially much more troublesome than trying to recruit them outside the bounds of the UCI’s signing period. The motivation to offer such a deal is clear – when GreenEDGE submits its license application, it wants to ensure it has enough collective UCI points to make it a sho-in for the first division (a la Leopard-Trek), and it’s willing to pay for that assurance. But incentivizing riders to pursue UCI points for their current teams puts those riders at the heart of a severe conflict of interest.
As we know, winning a professional bike race is about a bunch of guys sacrificing their strength and chances so that one team member can win, or try to at least try to win. If each team member is chasing their own placings and the points that go with them, the team strategy goes all to hell. In the late 1990s, or maybe it was the early 2000s, Cofidis had virtually no cohesive team strategy and the underachievement to match. Why? A significant part of their riders’ pay structure was tied to UCI points, so when things really went down on the road, it was every man for himself. But at least Cofidis was responsible for putting itself in that position. If allegations of GreenEDGE’s gladly-pay-you-Tuesday-for-a-UCI-point-today offer are true, GreenEDGE is effectively forcing Cofidis’s terrible management strategy onto other teams.
Will such an offer have any real effect on rider behavior? I wonder. I’m guessing most riders know that, in professional cycling, what goes around comes around. In what could be a 10 or 14 year career, you don’t want to become known as the guy who screws over your current team to get in the good graces of the next. A few rounds of that, and no team wants to be the next screw-ee. Further, I’d imagine that as soon as a team got the feeling a rider was engaging in that sort of behavior, the rider would be benched, thus eliminating their ability to gather any points at all. In the long-run, it’s better for riders to demonstrate their value to all prospective teams through their work, UCI points be damned, than to blow their credibility trying to collect 14th place points for a single, possibly pie-in-the-sky outfit. Also, it should be pretty easy to spot the type of rider who might be engaged in this particular effort -- they're the ones who have pet kangaroos, drink a lot of Fosters, eat deep fried onions, and carry enormous hunting knives at all times. Or so I've been led to believe. Anyway, I don’t expect to see Mark Renshaw trying to shake Mark Cavendish at 200 meters and cutting for the line anytime soon. (Just a hypothetical example – Renshaw’s under contract through 2012, I believe. Not that that matters.)
- GreenEDGE was also allegedly in pursuit of Garmin DS Matt White, but he’s since signed on to take over Neil Stephens’s position as the Australian national team road coach. He’ll be doing that in addition to his Garmin duties, so I suppose the GreenEDGE angle there is put to rest. Stephens, however, is leaving the national position to…surprise…go sign riders and be a director for GreenEDGE.
- GreenEDGE reportedly has the backing of Australian cycling’s sugardaddy, Gerry Ryan, head of the Jayco camper company. I, for one, am hoping that Jayco becomes the title sponsor. Then, in an homage to the RV industry, the jerseys can feature a band of wood-grain paneling and the team bus can feature moldy carpet and some rotting floorboards around the shower.
- Not to be bossy, but start reading this blog right now. Particularly the post-Peter Post post.
- How envious is Leopard-Trek that I capitalized the “EDGE” in GreenEDGE? Know why I did it? Because they didn't try to make me. It’s worth noting that the infamous list of media demands regarding presentation and pronunciation of the Leopard team name was reportedly sent out by Trek, not by the team itself. I'm guessing team manager Bryan Nygaard has enough experience as a press officer for Riis and Sky to know that dictating style and usage to the media is an uphill battle, and that it’s better to stay on their good side by not presuming to order them around. Trek Bicycles, on the other hand, has clearly come to think of the cycling media as an arm of their advertising department. More disturbing than the misconception itself is the likely chain of events that’s led them to believe that.
- Yesterday’s cyclocross World Cup from Pontchateau, France finally gave those of us in the Mid-Atlantic United States an international course that looked a little more familiar, with green grass and a blue groove replacing the deep mud and snow of the low countries. I reveled in watching those sloppy Christmas week races, but it was nice to see a fast, tactical race after the weeks of grinding. One thing’s for sure, if yesterday’s winner Kevin Pauwels (Fidea) comes to the line in a small group at the world championships in Sankt Wendel, you can’t count him out for rainbow bands. Nys and Albert have been no match for his finishing kick, though an in-form Zdenek Stybar (Fidea) would have a better shot.
- No time to get into the whole race radio debate at the moment, but I do wish all of the managers and riders would stop bleating about the 18-2 vote by the teams to keep the radios. I understand what that vote demonstrates, but the fact is, the sport isn’t a direct democracy run by the riders or the teams. Obviously, rider and team input should always factor into the sport’s decisions – both because it is the riders who ultimately place their lives on the line, and because riders and teams have been historically underrepresented in decision-making. But what would cycling in particular and pro sports in general look like if the participants made all the rules? My bet: they'd be both less safe and less marketable.
Great post as usual, the comment on trek marketing was an example of a few words saying alot. I normally ignore blogs recommending blogs but you are right, the cafe has made the bookmarks list.Post a Comment