Cycling teams are not usually known for their long-term planning. It’s precariously expensive to run a bike team, and sponsors are flighty – so a win in the hand is usually valued much more highly than 'two in the bush'.
Typically a team can only really plan two seasons ahead, because they never ordinarily know if they’ll exist longer than that. In a buyer’s market, where all but a couple of teams wind up clamouring for sponsors at the end of each season, companies rarely ink deals for longer than two years and are usually able to dictate terms. As a result, one-year rider contracts are commonplace, and the idea of 'job security' generally fairly fanciful.
Which is what makes the way UAE Team Emirates is buying up talent all the more noteworthy. Clearly, the United Arab Emirates do not foresee running out of sovereign wealth any time soon.
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This week, after winning the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia, otherwise known as the Under 23 Giro or ‘Baby Giro’, Juan Ayuso became the latest super-talent to sign a long contract with UAE Team Emirates. After dominating the ten-day race where he secured all four leader's jerseys on his way to the win, Ayuso looks likely to form the bedrock of UAE's Tour team for the years to come.
The Spanish eighteen-year-old is now contracted to the Emirati-backed squad until 2025. The only other rider with a deal that long is Tadej Pogačar, whose deal actually runs till ’26. Pogačar first signed for UAE on the strength of his 2018 Tour de l’Avenir win and renewed after his maiden maillot jaune last season.
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This isn’t the first bright prospect UAE has picked up. Felix Groß will join the squad this year as a trainee (after he finishes up representing Germany on the track in Tokyo), before beginning a chunky three-year deal next season. Colombian Andres Camilo Ardila won the Baby Giro in 2019, before also turning pro with the team at the start of the Covid-wracked 2020 season.
There’s a clear modus operandi here, and the fact that Pogačar went on to win the Tour de France within two years of signing means there’ll be no doubts over the strategy’s effectiveness. Sign them young, test them early, and reap the rewards over the next half-a-decade.
Of course there’s more unusual about the UAE transfer policy than just the length of these contracts, there is the apparent absence of concern over the effect of WorldTour racing on teenage bodies. It was always the way that riders progressed through the junior ranks to U23, maybe stagiaired with a professional team, before finally making their step up to the top ranks of the sport. It allowed them time to adapt to the increasing demands of the sport as well as gaining experience.
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Nowadays, many riders are skipping that process entirely, going from maybe a single year in U23 straight to the bigtime – and the effects this sort of baptism of fire might have are pretty much unknown.
Egan Bernal’s bad back might give us a little insight into the long-term effect of Grand Tour-winning efforts in your early 20s, although it didn’t slow him down much at this year’s Giro. Having a recently-returned-to-fitness Remco Evenepoel take on three weeks of the Giro may turn out in retrospect to have been a calamitous misstep on his developmental pathway - although once again, his bounce-back win in the Baloise Belgium Tour says otherwise. And then of course there is Quinn Simmons, who jumped up to turn pro last year with Trek-Segafredo, only to endure a very underwhelming, almost catastrophic classics campaign this season.
Whether it proves to be the right or wrong thing for the individual athletes in the long-term, in the immediate future UAE has a host of young riders with which to bolster its roster – and for every bright spark they sign up to a long contract, they also remove that rider from the talent pools of their opponents. Not so long ago, it was Team Sky being decried as the talent hogs, hoarding GC leader-calibre riders and using them as workhorses, leaving the rest of the WorldTour with nothing but scraps. This is moneyball played the Emirati way, where you rely on superior spending power to effectively lock the opposition out of the market; Big Money Ball.
In one or two more years, Ineos may find they have been outstripped by a future-facing, hyper-aggressive UAE Team Emirates, who've bought up all the potential Grand Tour winners for the next decade or so.
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