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Value Proposition: Should Rider Pay Matter When Weighing Performance?

How the concept of rider 'value' will change the composition of the WorldTour in the near future

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Nearly every mainstream professional sport has entire sub-industries, both inside and outside of front offices, that obsess over the ‘value’ of athletes. This is driven by the simple idea that nearly every franchise has a finite amount of money to spend and by getting the best value back from each roster acquisition, they greatly increase their chances of sporting success.

Words: Spencer Martin

For a confluence of reasons, like the fact that rider salaries aren’t public information and the lack of a salary cap, professional cycling doesn’t follow suit, and it is incredibly rare to hear rider ‘value’ discussed within teams and/or by fans and media. This means the discourse is reduced to a rider either being good or not, a winner or loser, someone who works well for the team, or is selfish. However, this is an incredibly backward, and unnecessarily opaque way to measure performance, and could lead multiple long-time top-tier teams to be relegated from the WorldTour when the relegation format kicks in at the end of 2022 season (teams finishing below the 18th spot in UCI point rankings from 2020-2022 will be kicked out of the WT).

The Power of Focusing on Rider ‘Value’

Judging by just results he generates, Tadej Pogačar is a great rider, potentially the best since Eddy Merckx, but what should be more important to team managers about Pogačar is that even at €6 million per season, he generates incredible value for any team lucky enough to have him on their roster. 

EF, DSM, Lotto, and BikeExchange all spend far more than €6 million per season on salary and still generated fewer UCI points as entire teams than Pogačar did by himself in the 2021 season. In short, if those teams could sign Pogačar at his current rate and fill out the rest of the roster with minimum-salary journeyman, they would both save money on payroll and outperform their 2021 points total (as well as getting an absurd amount of publicity for having the sport’s best rider on their team). 

2021 WorldTour UCI Team vs. Pogačar Rankings

14. Intermarché-5616 pts
15. Tadej Pogačar-5363 pts
16. Cofidis-5533 pts
17. EF-5404 pts
18. Arkéa Samsic-5037 pts
19. BikeExchange-4713 pts
20. Lotto-Soudal-4659 pts

To put this feat into perspective, Pogačar’s point total over the last two seasons (8418) is nearly equal to Arkéa-Samsic’s entire team (8734), which means if Pogačar were a one-man team, he would nearly be in a better position than the French team to qualify for the WorldTour when the UCI implements its new relegation format after the 2022 season.

This example should show the power of focusing on rider ‘value’ versus name recognition and past results. If one end of the spectrum is full of riders like Pogačar, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel can carry teams with their win and points hauls, the other is full of big-name stars who can potentially kneecap their organizations by eating a large amount of salary while generating no meaningful points or win bump. The concept of ‘value’ might not be discussed in cycling, but the reality is that poor value signings can be pinpointed as the reason for the decline and chronic underperformance of so many teams, while a thoughtful focus on high-value roster additions is the main reason for the success of many of the sport’s ascendant organizations (DQS, Jumbo, UAE).

Not a Popular Subject

In a recent episode of the Lanterne Rouge podcast, the titular host unleashed a brutal, yet fair, roast of Groupama-FDJ star sprinter Arnaud Démare. Lanterne took particular issue with Démare’s claim in an interview with Le Parisien of a two-speed peloton, which is a classic innuendo for accusing your competition of doping when he had the best season of his career as recently as 2020.

While Démare’s claim is clearly absurd, especially in a season when 36-year-old Mark Cavendish had a career season, the bigger issues stem from the fact that Démare, despite commanding what is likely a seven-figure salary from the French team, returned a disappointing level of wins and points throughout the 2021 season relative to his pay. 

Despite leveling what I considered pretty fair criticism of Démare, the hosts were heavily criticized on social media for A) judging a rider’s performance in a negative light and B) bringing a rider’s salary into the conversation. It can be undeniably strange to incessantly discuss strangers’ salaries relative to their performance, but I was still somewhat shocked by the negative reaction and pushback the position received. This shows that rider ‘value’ is likely an unpopular subject, but also that even the sport’s most dedicated fans lag far behind something that is commonplace in nearly every other professional sport. 

The Ultimate Marginal Gain

Just because it is an unpopular topic with many fans and an underrepresented metric among team front offices doesn’t mean rider value isn’t a factor that is absolutely critical to team success. Israel Start-Up has essentially locked itself into mediocrity by signing Chris Froome to a five-year, €25 million deal that runs through 2025. This means Sylvan Adams, the team’s patron, is unlikely to be willing to sign another rider at this price (the market rate for a true Tour de France contender) while the Froome deal is still in place. Pro cycling might not have a salary cap, but nearly every team still has to operate inside a fixed amount of money given to them by the sponsors, and team budgets are still the most restrictive force on a team’s success.

Ineos, the richest team in the sport who reportedly offered Tadej Pogačar €18 million per year (which, judging by his UCI point haul, could still offer a good value at that price), is perhaps an exception to this rule, but even they have to ultimately justify their expenses to team owner Jim Ratcliffe, who, while rich, doesn’t have unlimited funds and will want an ROI from his expenditure.

When we look at the teams who have been ascendant in the sport in recent years, it is almost exclusively teams who have recognized the goal of team-building is to buy results, not riders, which has allowed them to leverage the value of each roster spot and leverage limited team budgets into top-tier results.

2021 PCS Team Points Standings

When we look at the top-performing teams from the 2021 season, we can immediately see a clear divide between management who think of roster building in terms of ‘rider value’ (DQS, Jumbo, Bora, Alpecin) and teams who approach their roster in terms of building around stars (BikeExchange, EF, Lotto, Israel). For example, while DQS has a few big names on their roster like Julian Alaphilippe, their sustained excellence is derived from the fact that they never overpay for a big name, and rely on a rotating cast of extremely skilled and talented riders like Kasper Asgreen, Florian Sénéchal, and Yves Lampaert. The same could be said for Alpecin, who, as a second-division team, has disrupted the sport by surrounding superstar Mathieu van der Poel with an incredibly capable, but somewhat anonymous, supporting cast, who can win at the sport’s biggest races in their own right. 

Going back to our Groupama-FDJ/Arnaud Démare example. While Démare is a big name, former Monument winner, and FDJ’s major brand-name rider, his performance over the last season isn’t on the same level as Tim Merlier, a rank-and-file rider on Alpecin-Fenix. 

Despite making what is likely five times the salary of Merlier, Démare’s grand tour stage wins, and PCS Ranking was far lower than Merlier’s 2021 numbers and more telling was not significantly better than Merlier’s 2021 numbers during his career-best 2020 season.

Démare vs Merlier WorldTour Wins 2019-2021

Démare vs Merlier PCS Ranking 2019-2021

We don’t have any hard data on it, but by piecing together unofficial sources, there seems to be a trend where rider salaries balloon when they are seen as a rider who can win more than three or four WT races a season. So, using this information, if we set star power aside, it is clear that considering raw performance and ability to rack up WorldTour wins (i.e. important ones) and UCI points, Groupama-FDJ would be better off significantly lowering Démare’s salary and using the surplus funds to sign a series of affordable top-performers, or, as crazy as it sounds, simply releasing Démare altogether and re-building the squad around a series of skilled, but somewhat anonymous riders, who can out-perform Démare in the aggregate.

For example, if we take Démare’s impressive 2020 performances and an estimated salary, and compare it to above-average, but not star-level, performances by the type of rank-and-file riders who populate the rosters of teams like Alpecin-Fenix and Intermarché, we can see that it is possible to achieve the same aggregate result with a fraction of the money.

Team Structure Value Examples:

Star Format:
Rider, Salary, WT Wins
Rider A, €1.5 million, 4
Total Expenditure = €1.5 million
Total WT Wins = 4

Aggregate Format:
Rider, Salary, WT Wins
Rider A, €250,000, 2
Rider B, €150,000, 1
Rider C, €150,000, 1
Total Expenditure = €550,000
Total WT Wins = 4

When combined with the undeniably great recent-season aggregate performances of value-driven teams like Alpecin and DQS, this somewhat crude exercise should show us the immense importance of considering rider salaries when weighing performance, at least when it comes to roster building and off-season contract extensions/transfers. With variables that may just slightly affect rider performance like the rolling resistance of tire compounds and the aerodynamics of jersey material obsessively measured by teams, it is confounding that results relative to contract amount (i.e. value) isn’t, at least publicly, considered as much. 

But, as more and more teams get smarter with their roster selection and who they spend their limited budgets on, and with the rapidly approaching relegation WT deadline coming at the end of the season, it will become necessary for the more traditional teams to adapt, or risk falling helpless behind, and ultimately, out of the sport’s top-flight for the foreseeable future.