As BMC Development Team prepares to roll over the line for the final time, Espoirs World reflects on the fact that developing young athletes is something of an expensive and potentially thankless task.
Years of investment by a development squad in any sport often results in the best athletes leaving to join bigger teams or clubs. In cycling, there are those who believe that all WorldTour teams should be “associated” with a development team. Exactly what “associated” means in practice is something of a moveable feast, of course, and can directly affect the success of the project.
One current (for the rest of this week at least) example is the BMC Development Team which shares sponsors and resources with the BMC Pro team. A different arrangement is Trek-Segafredo’s 2018 development team, Polartec-Kometa. This Fundacion Contador owned Continental squad has its own sponsors, a separate under-23 non-UCI team, and a feeder junior team.
The first model – let’s call it the BMC model – aims to develop riders primarily so that they move into their own elite team. BMC Development team riders have, by many accounts, a “matching” clause in their contract which requires them to join the BMC Pro team if a rival’s offer is matched. This model puts the team’s interests first – they want to develop riders so that they can win races for the elite squad in the WorldTour. The sponsor’s interests are bound up in this too: they really want the publicity of WorldTour wins and funding a development team is seen as a cost of achieving this. Having riders leave to join other WorldTour squads is perceived as a failure of the system and a waste of money. It goes without saying that running a development team for a whole season is a lot more expensive than poaching another team’s rider in September, so unless you develop a real superstar and have him move to the pro team, win the Tour, etc, the cost looks high compared to the benefits for the sponsor and the pro team.
The second model – for want of a better term, the Contador model, although there are many other examples – separates the development process from the spoils of later-career success. Trek-Segafredo may well have a contractual call-option over the Polartec riders, but Polartec’s interests as title sponsor of the programme are aligned with rider development as the end-in-itself. There’s publicity to be had from wins (or more likely TV time) on the Continental circuit but the bragging rights are won by putting athletes into the WorldTour. Development is an aim, not a cost. Even if Trek broke its link with Polartec the funding gap is easier to bridge than if Trek-Segafredo had its own Continental and junior teams. (I haven’t asked Trek what their financial commitment is to the Polartec project, if any, and we can reasonably expect that they wouldn’t tell me anyway.)
The longest running development teams in cycling are those who see improving riders as their goal. Either they are in it for the athletes, or have defined “success” in terms which don’t refer to particular WorldTour results. Team Joker just wants to develop Norwegian riders and get them into the WorldTour, no matter which other sponsor later gets publicity from the rider’s success.
So for a development team to be viable, it needs to aim to develop, and for its interests to end there.
(Inrng did a great blog on this back in August, which I don’t think I’ve plagiarised)