Transfers, allegiances and San Sebastián

The cycling world is abuzz with transfer rumour and speculation on the future of the sport’s biggest stars. The three podium finishers at the recent Tour de France are all set to move teams in what will be the biggest transfer shakeup for a number of years. Frank and Andy Schleck are starting their own team based in Luxembourg, Alberto Contador has announced that he will definitely not be at Astana next year but has not agreed terms with a new team as yet and Denis Menchov is reportedly making a move to join Astana, or his compatriots at Katusha. Other riders such as Stijn Devolder, Jussi Veikkanen and Francesco Chicchi have also announced that they will be riding for new teams next year.

All this and we’re still in the month of July. Whatever happened to the UCI’s rule that no transfers should be announced before the 1st September? Well, in actual fact, that date has been changed. On the 1st July this year, the UCI amended their rules so that transfers can now be negotiated and announced any time after the 1st August. Article 2.15.120 of the UCI Cycling Regulations on Road Races states:

A transfer period extends from 1 August to 20 October

A UCI ProTeam or licence applicant may only recruit riders during the transfer period.

The regulations go on to state in Article 2.15.125:

Riders and UCI ProTeams may not reveal that they are in negotiations about renewal of their contracts or transfers outside the transfer period.

So even though the gag order on rider transfers has been pushed back a full month, all the announcements that have been made regarding team rosters for next year have still been in breach of the UCI regulations and all involved parties can be subjected to a fine between 300 and 2000 Swiss Francs.

Perhaps everyone is getting quietly fined and we just don’t hear about it. But ultimately, a directeur sportif’s announcement of a new rider for next season can only help in the search for sponsors. Therefore, teams are probably unconcerned with fines of hundreds of euro, when the exposure gained from announcing a new rider signing may help them land millions of euro from potential sponsors.

I’ve expressed my concerns before about rider transfers being announced so early in the season. The Tour de France may be over but there’s a huge amount of racing left. Announcing changes to the makeup of teams affects the mentality and the loyalty of riders. Why should a domestique feel satisfied sacrificing himself for a leader who intends to jump ship in a few months? Will a rider who is moving on to a new team, find himself working (consciously or subconsciously) for his new team rather than (or as well as) his current team?

The first test of allegiance for the stars of the Tour de France will come this Saturday in the Clásica de San Sebastián, a one day race in Spain. Previous winners of the race include former Tour champions Lance Armstrong and Miguel Indurain. This race was one of only two classics won by the Texan (along with Fléche Wallonne) and it also stands out on the palmarés of Indurain as the only major one day race he ever won. San Sebastián is very close to Indurain’s home town of Villava, the Spaniard also won a time trial of the Tour de France here in 1992. With a course more Tour of Lombardy than Paris-Tours the race has also been won by hilly classics specialists Laurent Jalabert, Paolo Bettini and Alejandro Valverde.

Carlos Barredo beating Roman Kreuziger in last year's edition of the Clásica de San Sebastián

Surprisingly, Alberto Contador will be at the startline on Saturday*. Last year, having won the Tour de France he decided to take it easy for the rest of the year with his only racing appearance coming in the Clásica Cancun, a minor race which he won. It’s the first time the triple Tour winner will appear in a Pro Tour race this late in the year after one of his Tour victories. Hitherto, Contador seemed to have been following in the footsteps of his former team mate Armstrong. The American, during his Tour winning years, made a habit of cutting his season short after the Tour de France. There were exceptions, in 2002 he competed in a string of one day races in August (including the Clásica de San Sebastián), and in 2000 he raced and won, the GP Eddy Merckx and the GP des Nations to prepare for the upcoming Olympic Games.

Carlos Sastre bucked this trend completely when he became the first rider to enter the Vuelta a Espana as reigning Tour de France champion since the Spanish Grand Tour moved to its current September slot on the calendar. Sastre rode strongly to take an impressive third place, the third time in a row he had finished on the podium of a Grand Tour that he’d entered. Next month, amazingly, Sastre is due to take part in his home Tour again, having already completed the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France this year. Completing the three Grand Tours in one season is something Sastre has already achieved in 2006 where he finished 43rd, 3rd and 4th in the Giro, Tour and Vuelta respectively. He follows in the footsteps of the 1982 Vuelta a Espana winner Marino Lejarreta who rode all three Grand Tours in one year on no less than four occasions. In 1989 he finished all of them inside the top 20 overall. Not to be forgotten is the fact that back then there was less than a week between the end of the Vuelta and the start of the Giro.

Incidentally, Marino Lejaretta holds the record for the number of wins in the Clásica de San Sebastián with three in 1981, 1982 and 1987. Historically the race is won by a rider who has shown excellent form in the Tour de France. In 2008, the race was won by yellow jersey wearer and stage winner Alejandro Valverde. Laurent Jalabert won back to back editions in 2001 and 2002, the same years he won his King of the Mountains titles at the Tour. Erik Dekker, winner in 2000, had won three Tour stages that year. So perhaps surprisingly it is a rider who didn’t take part in the Tour who has been made the bookie’s favourite, classics monster Philippe Gilbert.

Other favourites for the race include Spaniards Joaquim Rodriguez, Luis Leon Sanchez, Samuel Sanchez, and last year’s winner turned front wheel ninja, Carlos Barredo. Ireland’s Nicolas Roche is also in the top 10 of the bookie’s favourites to win this classic. While others around him are racing for contracts, or are disgruntled at riding for a team they no longer harbour ambitions for, Roche is safe in the knowledge that he has just signed a new 2 year deal with his AG2R La Mondiale team, which just may give him a boost in confidence to try and capitalise on his good Tour de France form.

*Shite. Just been informed that Contador won’t be on the startline on Saturday.

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