Per Strand Hagenes wins the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro. Jumbo-Visma had three riders in the ten rider breakaway. Only Per Strand Hagenes rides for a separate team, Jumbo-Visma Development Team and had joined the World Tour team for the day. Of course there’s only a fine distinction between the two teams… and that’s the point.
More and more teams are changing their approach to talent identification and recruitment. Increasingly a team’s prime source of new talent is their development team and these squads are becoming structured and brought under direct control of the parent team.
Vertical integration is a business term used to describe when a company buys part of its supply chain, think of car maker buying a steel maker so that it owns a big input; or in the other direction when a coffee roaster opening a café. Here it’s a World Tour team making recruitment an in-house matter.
Many teams have had satellite feeder teams with links but increasingly these are under direct control and formally registered as UCI Continental teams, as opposed to the older model of some satellite feeder club or team. DSM started this in 2017. Groupama-FDJ’s provided a recent example, it set up its UCI Continental team in 2019. As a “Conti” team this is a semi-professional structure – separately in France all Conti teams have to pay a salary to their riders and make social security and pension contributions but they can be unsalaried in other countries – that has to follow the UCI rulebook and is overseen by the national federation. Crucially a Continental team can race pro races, it’s eligible for everything outside the World Tour calender.
The professionalisation is going up a level now. This is the vertical aspect, increasingly teams are recruiting neo-pros from their own team rather than recruiting left and right from across the sport. Take Ag2r Citroën which is ending its long association with the Chambéry Cyclisme Formation (CCF) cycling team down the road from its service course. The arrangement’s worked well with a pipeline that’s brought the likes of Romain Bardet and Benoît Cosnefroy, at times CCF has pumped out so many good riders Ag2r couldn’t take them all, think Matteo Jorgenson turning pro with Movistar instead. But the Ag2r-CCF partnership’s ending because the World Tour team is founding its own directly-controlled and owned Continental team for 2024. One reason here is it can sign riders to this squad on a salary, it can let give them a calendar of pro races, and thanks to a crucial UCI rule, it can even draft its own Conti development riders in to the World Tour squad for lower-rated pro races, like Per Strand Hagenes above. If it’s a *.Pro race then the team can have two riders on the team from the Conti development team, if it’s a *.1 race then the team can have four development riders. So instead of a stagiaire trial it can offer the U23 riders regular days with the pro team throughout the year.
As of the start of this year eight World Tour teams have a Conti development team:
- Alpecin-Deceuninck, Astana, DSM-Firmenich, EF Education, Groupama-FDJ, Jumbo-Visma, Intermarché, Soudal-Quickstep, up from six the previous year
- Ag2r Citroën, Arkéa-Samsic, Bahrain, Bora-hansgrohe, Cofidis, Movistar, Jayco, Lidl-Trek, Ineos and UAE are the World Tour teams without.
- Israel-PremierTech, Lotto-Dstny and Uno-X all have one too.
But the list of teams without is shrinking. As mentioned already Ag2r will have one next year, in fact it’s going for even more vertical integration with a junior team as well, allowing them to sign a promising junior and offer them a pathway into the pro ranks. Also Arkéa is starting its U23 Conti team too. UAE is setting up “UAE Team Emirates Gen Z” as their Conti team too. Lidl-Trek have just announced they’ll have one too. So from 8 this year to 12 in 2024.
Even the teams that won’t have their own development team are still moving closer to it. Axeon-Hagens Bermans has been a conveyor belt of talent in recent years and now it’s it’s effectively becoming the Australian team’s feeder unit. Similarly Bahrain and the Friuli team work together but again cooperation rather than ownership. Cofidis has said they’re looking at it but first wants to consolidate its womens’ and paracycling teams. Bora don’t have an U23 Conti team but they have a junior squad and have signed the likes of Cian Uijtdebroeks direct from this, so a vertical hire. Indeed other teams are looking at junior teams too given the trend to recruit young, we see Ag2r and FDJ active here. Meanwhile Movistar is linked to the Lizarte U-23 team but this serves as the older, more traditional example as Lizarte is neither a Conti team, nor owned and controlled by the Movistar team.
So far so good, we can see why. But a Conti team is expensive, even if run out of a jurisdiction that doesn’t require a salary allowing it to recruit riders hungry enough for subsistence payments and the chance to prove themselves. Riders might race for almost free but the team needs need managers, trainers, mechanics, soigneurs and a fleet of vehicles to fuel and maintain, and while sponsors might be on board, they don’t get much publicity in return. All this and taking a rider on a junior team or into a Conti team only gives the pro team an option on their recruitment. Riders aren’t livestock, so they are free to chose their employer, a promising U23 can turn pro with another team, there’s zero obligation to stay. It’s just that proximity counts, links are established and both sides know what they’re getting so there’s a tendency to stay. However as much as these ties can count, a gigantic contract from a superstar team goes a long way too. Readers will remember BMC shuttered its development team because it saw its best riders recruited elsewhere, like Pavel Sivakov going to Team Sky. This can happen again and if a rider seen as The Next Big Thing appears, it’ll likely happen. But it’s not automatic and as big as some neo-pro contracts are – big six figure deals happen – the real earnings come later once a rider becomes an established contender so better to develop as a pro rather than just take the highest contract, and agents are aware of this as well, their incentives are normally for the long term too.
Also these teams can attract talent, they offer a clear pathway to the pro peloton, supply team-issue kit, a big calendar, some require ongoing education and more but they can’t recruit every promising rider. They might incubate the next Remco Evenepoel or Tadej Pogačar, but not the next Primož Roglič who took up cycling aged 22 too late even for an U23 development squad. Indeed the more vertical recruitment gets, the more unpolished diamonds could be missed out. There are opportunities for clever recruitment too for teams unable to fund a side team.
Just a note to observe how neo-pro recruitment is changing. The majority of World Tour teams have an in-house U23 development team today, even more will have one next year. Feeder teams have long existed but now they’re owned and run by the pro team and by registering at Conti level, they’re pro teams in their own right. Once upon a time a rider “turned pro” but now it feels like more of a process starting in the junior ranks, formal pro teams for U23s and then moving up to a World Tour team. It’s a sign of the increased budgets of World Tour teams as they deem it worth running entire side teams in order to help recruit and retain young talent.