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Thursday Thoughts: What’s that under the tree?

A new cycling team? You shouldn’t have!

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Well, folks, the festive season is upon us, and there’s a Christmas special Thursday Thoughts as part of your celebrations. As a keen student of such matters, I know what I need to do. This will be (a) something I planned to write anyway, but shoe-horned into a Christmassy theme; (b) a two-parter with a cliff-hanger in the middle; (c) designed to cause an argument, because that’s the true spirit of Christmas.

Anyway, the theme. In recognition of my excellence as a human being, the powers that be have granted me a license to set up a UCI World Tour team. Which is lovely. Next week, we’ll unwrap the presents (do you see?) and work out who will be in the team. Today, the context for Team PdC, and a few ideas of what it’ll look like.

I do like a stock images library
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What about the budget?

This is, of course, the biggest problem with a theoretical exercise like this. Cycling doesn’t make it easy. Not only is the sport devoid of salary cap or revenue sharing, budgets aren’t really published. However, for the sake of this exercise, I’ll work off l’Equipe’s estimates for 2016 and assume that we have a budget in those terms of around the €12m range – below average but not among the poorest.

Yes, I’m aware that those estimates out of date and likely inaccurate, but they’ll do. I’m also aware that, since I started working on this, Team Sky have announced their impending closure. We’ll carry on regardless, as this team starts racing Down Under in January 2019, but rest assured my scouts and managers will be among the vultures circling the bloated robot carcass come Le Tour.

We could go mad trying to make the finances work, but there are too many inponderables and it isn’t a particularly fun exercise, which this is intended to be. I’m not going to try to create a budget for travel, support staff, or any of that stuff. I’m not even going to estimate the contracts of the riders I’m employing. That, too, would be nothing but guesswork.

The question is, relative to other teams with similar budgets, how will I seek to distribute my cash to maximise the bang for the buck that our team produces?

What will the structure be?

Here’s a challenging thought process – how much is spent on non-rider staff costs by a typical team? Hard to say, but inrng has recently looked into Sky and AG2R, two rare teams obliged to publish accounts. A couple of years ago, Sky helpfully published a disclosure of staff costs, as well as a separate recognition of staff and riders’ costs, from which we can conclude that 27 of every 179 payroll pounds were spent on support staff (or 15%, if you prefer). One would imagine this is lower for other teams, given Sky’s emphasis on support.

Development: yes. Motorhomes: no.
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Team PdC will match or exceed that 15%, and will also spend high on equipment, sports science, and other related costs. Yes, with a lower budget than Sky this will be a compromise on riders, but I believe it is worth it. Marginal gains is a stupid phrase and a ridiculous notion, but there’s some truth underneath it. I think talent will shine through regardless of support, but I’m building a team where riders will need to develop after being signed, and ensuring that they have proper support is essential to that.

What sort of support? I’m keen to avoid being too doctrinaire (the Sunweb trap, if the scuttlebutt is to be believed) and want my riders to have freedom on the bike. However, it is important that they are taught and supported in injury prevention (this more than any other element will justify the spend) and rehabilitation, in effective nutrition and in fitness preparation. It is also important that we have the best possible guys in the team cars. I’m going to spend money on all of those things.

What will the DS and support structure look like?

In a word? Young.

In more words? Experience as a team manager or a race DS is, in my view, secondary to an understanding of the riders and an ability to read a race. The sport has changed a lot in the last ten or fifteen years and for all but the most flexible and far-sighted (and, therefore, expensive) it is hard to stay relevant and ensure approachability and relevance in training and tactics. If I want high quality and affordable back room staff, I’m going to have to sacrifice experience.

We can’t afford Marc. Which is good news for our car sponsor.
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High quality medical support, physiotherapy and mechanical support are straightforward to obtain if sufficient funding is available. More tricky is scouting. In that world, my focus on under-represented areas of the world and athletes transferring from other sports should help to provide interest for my fan base and keep value for money high, but will involve serious expenditure on scouting. I plan to borrow from the England cricket model (see what happens when Chris announces he’s leaving?) and use lots of consultants on part time or per-report contracts providing feedback to my development and talent identification group.

As part of the plan to keep costs down, I don’t expect many of them to have a background in cycling; like my development and sport science team, they’ll be drawn from across sport and with a strong analytical base. My belief, and Team PdC will be the test case for this, is that raw talent is identified as analytically as possible, and cycling has much to learn from other sports, and once they get on the road the riders, with young and dynamic DSs, should be as untethered to long-term plans as possible.

Can we talk about the riders now?

Yes, fair enough. 900 words in and it is probably time to talk about the riders. Although, I’m not really going to do that until next week. When the list comes out, I’m going to limit myself to riders I could theoretically “get” – so riders who were out of contract during 2018, or are currently out of contract, or riders I think I could conceivably have nabbed from smaller teams without onerous penalties. I want a team that has the number and range of riders to compete across the compulsory WT races, and without going crazy about finances, I want it to pass the “eyeball test” as a low to medium budget WT squad in cost terms.

Beyond that, there are a few kinds of riders I’m looking for:

Versatile: We talk about modern cycling as being hyper-specialised, and of course it is. Not as much as people think, though. Nibali and Kwiatkowski have both won Milan San-Remo despite being nobody’s idea of a specialist in that sort of race. Both have also ridden with credit on the cobbles and in grand tours. We can’t afford them, but riders with a range of skills are going to be more prized than absolute purists. Maybe we’ll get the next Gianni Moscon, whoever he might be.

Young: Well, obviously. Something you might have picked up from my scribblings over this off-season – I like the possibilities of riders who haven’t found their ceiling yet. It also just makes good economic sense – we can’t go out and buy a Froome or a Dumoulin, so maybe we can develop one. That’s also why we’re investing in development and support. So, there will be a smattering of experience, essential for setting a culture, but we’re focusing on the kids.

International: I’ve hinted at this above. There’s more competition for riders from the heartlands of Italy, Spain, Belgium, etc. Out team won’t ignore those countries, but we’re going to cast a wide net. That’ll help with advertising, sure, but more importantly it’ll allow us to pluck more affordable riders who haven’t necessarily had the same level of development support early in their careers.

Winners: This is important, and not as obvious as it initially seems. We’re not looking to make up the numbers, we want to win. That isn’t just about picking good riders, although that helps, it is about picking riders who have the ability to win races. That means that at least a few of our chosen riders should be sprinters, climbers with a decent finish, time triallers or breakaway specialists.

Matt White’s story about developing Mitchelton-Scott is germane here, and is truly excellent – if it became a book, I’d buy it, even as it rendered this article utterly pointless. I won’t be picking up Gerrans, Albasini or Matthews, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the early successes of those three were a major reason why the Yateses and all the young talent signed up, and the team was able to transition to a seemingly stable GC-chasing team. If I can steal that idea, I will. The fact that in this offseason he’s going after young chrono-men brings me onto another thought.

Winning a 2014 monument with the versatile Gerrans
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Powerful against the clock: This is an easy one. I’m always surprised how little market good time triallists get. For a smaller team, they are instant credibility (if they’re good enough to be involved in GT time trials or to win national vests) and they help on flat stages and leadouts as well as being a big part of TTTs, obviously. My new team is sorry it won’t get to compete in the World TTTs but I’m not turning my back on this line of development.

Crowd-sourced: Come on, guys, you thought I was going to do all this on my own? This is Team PdC, the place where the peanut gallery are involved. So, DDIFP, tell your mum to order you a pizza and put the stove on in your basement, you’re going to be commenting on this story for a while. I can’t promise that I’ll pick up anyone who is mentioned, but if you make a good case and follow the criteria above (or suggest better ones) you’ve got a decent chance.

Coming next week

On Thursday, as we pull ourselves out from the worst excesses of Christmas and lurch into the festive perineum, and as I get myself onto a flight to my own offseason training, we’ll unwrap the present under our metaphorical tree and announce the full roster. 26 brave men and true, ready to pull on the Podium Café kit (available now!) and take to the roads in search of glory in 2019. Plus a DS, since I can’t be trusted.