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Hirschi Departure Extends Chaos at Sunweb/DSM

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84th La Fleche Wallonne 2020 - Men Elite Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Just waking up to the news that Team DSM, the renamed Sunweb outfit, is bidding adieu to its perhaps most precious commodity, young classics climber Marc Hirschi. This is obviously big news: Hirschi, 22, was something of a breakout star at the 2020 Tour de France, with several close calls on stages before finally bagging one, and then winning La Flèche Wallonne before again nearly missing out at Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2nd) and Worlds (bronze medal). He ranked 17th overall at year’s end in the Podium Cafe World Rankings. Not bad for a second full season in the Show.

The bigger news here is that someone is clearly buying him out of Sunweb/DSM — which itself is not unusual. Except that it keeps happening to the same team.

  • In 2019, team star Tom Dumoulin forced his release from the team to join wealthier rival Jumbo Visma, complaining on his way out the door that he was constantly threatened with losing his leadership when he didn’t deliver results.
  • Before Dumoulin’s departure, his support got cleaned out from the departures of Mike Teunissen, Simon Geschke and Laurens ten Dam.
  • This year’s departures include Wilco Kelderman, Sam Oomen, and Rob Power. The trio simply did not get renewed by the team — a decision that looks regrettable after Kelderman’s third in the Giro.
  • Also leaving early this year is Michael Matthews, who got left off the Tour squad and sought his release.
  • In previous years, Warren Barguil and Marcel Kittel also got let out of their deals early to leave the team.

Having veteran riders jump ship from Sunweb is hardly news at this point; we covered this a bit when Matthews made his statement last summer. The chaotic management and race tactics are a common complaint. [Which is not at all unique to the Iwan Spekenbrink squad; we just get to hear it aired in public more, thanks to the contract departures.] Sunweb have been raking in young talent in recent years and have seemed to established a pattern of swapping out veteran riders for cheaper, younger replacements. There are any number of sports teams, from soccer (coughRomacough) to MLB (hi Tampa) and so on, who emulate this approach, usually as a method of financial survival. And it’s not a bad model in a lot of sports, given how much young talent there is in cycling, baseball, football, basketball etc.

Losing Hirschi seems like something slightly different: the selling off of cycling’s most valuable commodity, those as-yet-underpaid young talents. Let’s assume this decision by DSM came with a nice payment from whichever team is behind this move. If so, it looks like a million soccer transfers involving upcoming young stars whose teams can get the Madrids and Juventuses (spit sound) to pay tens of millions for a kid and his cheap contract. For many smaller clubs, developing and harvesting young talent like cold assets is a way of life.

Except in the cycling model, the contract is terminated, so at least Hirschi might not be so underpaid by whoever is behind this. Another factor, which as an outsider I can’t speak to with great authority but I can at least point at it, is the role of agents who are becoming more powerful as they broker these kinds of deals and get their clients where they want to go — often with the teams where the agent’s other big signees ride. “Player empowerment” is one of those sea changes in American sports, happening now most prominently in the NBA, where players come to understand that they are valuable enough to force teams to do things for them, including trading them against the team’s will. Part of their power comes from the work an agent can do in the shadows to find a buyer or three, which then allows the player to tell his current team to trade now or lose him for nothing later. It’s fun for fans to scoff at agents when they are talked about as wielding power, but I think the insiders will tell you that their influence is no laughing matter.

If I am on the right track here — a big if, perhaps — then we are seeing the continuation or even evolution of rider empowerment, at least to the point where cash-strapped teams have to play along. In the NBA, top players know that there is plenty of cash somewhere for them to seize, an assumption that might not hold too well in cycling. But for a valuable enough rider, there will be buyers. INEOS and UAE both topped 30m Euro budgets last year, and INEOS could use a star for the climbing classics, while UAE could build a juggernaut pairing Hirschi with Diego Ulissi.

Oddly enough, Hirschi’s agent is Fabian Cancellara, his superstar countryman who I guess is now an agent, and who undoubtedly has extensive contacts throughout the sport. His former Trek team would be a cool landing spot, although I’m not sure he’s a huge need or that the team — and its middling budget — could afford Hirschi. I haven’t had my ear too close to the ground lately so maybe you guys are hearing more of these semi-sourced insider rumors about who’s pulling these sort of strings nowadays. Feel free to add to the rumor mill.

The season is fast approaching, and like I said, this “departure” doesn’t likely happen without an “arrival” in the works, so we should know more soon.