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The Harsh Reality of Uncontracted Riders

By Joshua Donaldson

January 1st – a day, for most professional riders, to show off new kits with their 2022 team. For most, it is a time for optimism, setting new goals, meeting and learning from new teammates.

We saw this on the same day as Ben Turner, a British cyclo-cross rider who showed up to GP Sven Nys in his new Bioracer kit with Ineos Grenadiers emblazoned on the front of it, performed admirably, finishing sixth in a stacked field. Away from the cross fields, social media was lit up by different riders showing off their new colours with many different cycling accounts ranking those new kits from best to worst. But for some riders, this time of year is not about showing off their new kit – it is a time of uncertainty. This article charts those who go into the new year without a team or a contract and what options they have in front of them in January.

Fabio Aru
Team Qhubeka NextHash were the ones to fold due to a lack of funding. © Profimedia

With cycling’s ever-fragile financial reliance on short-term sponsorship, which leads to teams chasing new backers year after year, it’s no surprise that we see a good chunk of World Tour riders without a contract for the new season. After the 2021 season, Team Qhubeka NextHash were the ones to fold due to a lack of funding after CCC Team merged with Wanty Groupe-Gobert in 2020, Katusha backed out in the same year and BMC left the World Tour in 2018. This pattern of teams leaving the sport means riders are scrambling for contracts, and with the UCI setting the maximum rider limit to 31, there are only so many spots up for grabs.

27 men’s World Tour riders are still looking for a contract at the time of writing (2nd January). This number has dropped from 40 at the start of December as teams have announced contract renewals as well some riders finding new homes either in the World Tour or dropping down to Continental level. But 27 is still a number higher than in most years, due to the dozen Qhubeka NextHash cyclists still hunting for a new deal.

Among those names are Simon Clarke, Domenico Pozzovivo, Sergio Henao, and Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg – respected, experienced riders who will surely have something before too long.

So, where are the spaces? Lotto Soudal have the most spaces left on their roster with four and they are probably the team that is in the market for new riders, given their precarious UCI World Tour ranking, which could see them drop out of men’s cycling top division in 2023. If UCI points are what they desire through 2022, Pozzovivo could be a great pick-up given his almost metronomic Grand Tour performances, which usually end in a top 10, and that would see him earn valuable points in the battle for World Tour survival. Another that fits the same bill is Henao, a former winner of Paris-Nice.

You would imagine, given the near desperation to carry on with their livelihoods, that contract talks will be short. But a lot depends on teams’ remaining budgets and with teams like Lotto Soudal already carrying big-name riders – in this case Caleb Ewan – can they afford reinforcements?

Times like these are precarious but they are not without hope. Before the 2021 season, Julien Vermote, an ever-reliable classics man and a domestique for Patrick Lefevre at Quick-Step between 2011 and 2017 who then followed Mark Cavendish to Team Dimension Data found himself without a contract until the end of March due to not being kept on by Cofidis and then suffering from two infections before Alpecin-Fenix swooped in at the last minute. He had a rough 2021, unable to race due to the parasite Toxoplasma gondii but the Dutch team has kept faith with him and he is now back in training, fully fit, able to race in 2022.

But what are the other options for pros unable to find anything? Taking a step down is one thing. James Shaw who spent three years at Lotto Soudal moved back to domestic racing in the UK and found his feet, signing a two-year deal with EF Education First that started on January 1st. Charlie Quarterman is now going down the same road, having had a tricky time with Trek Segafredo, he is now heading to a new French outfit, Philippe Wagner Cycling. It will be interesting to keep tabs on the young Brit to see whether he follows Shaw’s footsteps in the coming years.

At the other end of the spectrum is someone like Max Richeze. A formidable lead-out man who struck up a great partnership with fellow South American Fernando Gaviria at Quick-Step and UAE-Team Emirates is another player looking for a new deal. But at 38, he’s more pragmatic about his future, stating that if he can’t find a new team, he will retire. Although Richeze has had a long and strong career, leaving it not on your own terms must be difficult.

There are only five of the 18 teams with full rosters as we look ahead to the start of the road season later this month, meaning that there is still time for people to make moves. No doubt budget constraints are a factor, meaning some teams will wait as long as possible to see whether they need some more new faces but for the riders it is a test of patience, to remain professional and see what the new year brings. Because although they may not have updated their social media profiles with new kit photos on New Year’s Day, chances remain, and time will tell as to where they will end up.

All there is left to do is wait.

Riders without a contract on 2nd January 2022:

  1. Marcus Burghardt (Bora-Hansgrohe)
  2. Natnael Berhane (Cofidis)
  3. Jempy Drucker (Cofidis)
  4. Attilio Viviani (Cofidis)
  5. Alex Howes (EF Education-Nippo)
  6. Lachlan Morton (EF Education-Nippo)
  7. Logan Owen (EF Education-Nippo)
  8. James Whelan (EF Education-Nippo)
  9. Romain Seigle (Groupama-FDJ)
  10. Jeremy Bellicaud (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert)
  11. Alexander Evans (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert)
  12. Maurits Lammertink (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert)
  13. Riccardo Minali (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert)
  14. Sebastian Mora (Movistar)
  15. Carlos Barbero (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  16. Sean Bennett (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  17. Connor Brown (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  18. Simon Clarke (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  19. Nicolas Dlamini (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  20. Kilian Frankiny (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  21. Sergio Henao (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  22. Robert Power (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  23. Domenico Pozzovivo (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  24. Andreas Stokbro (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  25. Dylan Sunderland (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  26. Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg (Qhubeka-NextHash)
  27. Max Richeze (UAE Team Emirates)
  28. Martin Salmon (Team DSM)