Big fish, different ponds: Moves and shakes in the transfer market

The pro cycling transfer window opened on August 1st, and it felt like there were quite a few moves and shakes as the agents and teams wangled deals for their riders.

Among these were a few surprise moves by top-class riders to teams currently in the second division.

The market has been set in the shadow of the revelation that in 2020, the WorldTour will consist of 20 teams; two more than the 18 of this year.

The current teams have already confirmed a place in the upper echelon of the sport, meaning that the current crop of Pro Continental teams are fighting for a spot at the top level, and with it, the increased revenue and exposure that it brings.

At present, five teams have registered interest in stepping up; Arkea-Samsic, Cofidis, Total Direct Energie, Vital Concept, and Israel Cycling Academy (who are also rumoured to be merging with currently sponsorless Katusha-Alpecin).

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A knock-on effect of the WorldTour expanding is that the number of wildcard slots given to Pro Conti teams at the grand tours will shrink to two from four – meaning those left in the second tier have to be all the more competitive and enticing to race organisers.

Two of the five teams – Arkea Samsic and Cofidis – look to have made big investment in the bid to step up to the top tier, sinking big money into the transfer market.  What does this mean for both the teams and the riders?

Big Fish, Small Ponds?

Arkea Samsic, home of Warren Barguil, have recently signed Nairo and Dayer Quintana, Winner Anacona, and Diego Rosa. With Nairo Quintana looking to be returning to the form that has previously won him the Giro and the Vuelta, Arkea could have struck gold.

With a star like Quintana on their books, you would initially think French team Arkea will have bagged themselves a spot on the GrandTours, whether through WorldTour status or wildcard invite.

The Colombian’s presence will certainly bolster their chances for Tour de France attendance, however this is less certain for the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, where race organisers typically reserve slots for home teams, such as Androni Giocattoli and Nipo Vini Fantini, and Burgos BH and Caja Rural.

With only two wildcard slots available in 2020 grand tours, the pressure will be on those in the Pro Conti ranks to bag those season-defining places.

The move to Arkea seems a funny one for Quintana.

Admittedly, it is clear he’s unhappy at Movistar, and he has repeatedly vented his frustration at not having the full backing of his team as they deploy their awkward dual or even triple leadership strategy. As such, a move to lead a team with a strong bunch of climbers such as Anacona and Barguil could see him happier and more effective.

However, if Arkea are left stranded at in the pro conti ranks, Quintana may be a big fish in a small pond if his team don’t get the wildcard invites they gamble on.

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Another big confirmed transfer is that of sprinter extraordinaire Elia Viviani leaving Deceuninck-Quick-Step to go to second-tier Cofidis, a team strongly rumoured to be stepping up to WorldTour in 2020. 

Viviani will leave Deceuninck-Quick-Step along with his lead-out man Fabio Sabatini. Cofidis have also secured rouleur/sprinter Nathan Haas from Katusha-Alpecin to supplement a lead-out train they had developed in previous years for Nacer Bouhanni, who is due to leave the team.

This bolstering of the Cofidis ranks should mean Viviani will have a support team strong enough to see him able to rub shoulders with fast men from dominant sprint teams such as Bora-Hansgrohe and his former employers at Quick-Step.

Whether Cofidis have the resources to control the race for the preceding 90% of the stage to set up the sprint is another matter however and could play as much a part in the Italian’s future success as the leadout team being developed around him.

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Although both Viviani and Quintana’s prospects in new environments in 2020 is theoretically sound, there does seem to be an element of precariousness to the move. The resources that support the team can be as vital as the riders that make up its ranks, from the sports directors to the soigneurs, medics, and even bus drivers.

Although Cofidis and Arkea will of course have a highly trained and knowledgeable support group around them, their lack of exposure to the increased pressure, funding, and exposure compared to teams such as Deceuninck Quick Step may be telling. A few missing ‘marginal gains’ can mean the difference between first and second place in a WorldTour when the physiological playing field of the riders is becoming more and more level.

Whatever happens, Arkea Samsic and Cofidis look to be on to a pair of winning signings with Quintana and Viviani. We wait with bated breath as to whether the Colombian and Italian have similar fortunes.

Big fish, new ponds

Quintana’s possible move will mark the end of Movistar’s current leadership ‘trident’ of him, Alejandro Valverde, and Mikel Landa. And he’s not the only one of the three moving on, with Landa set to move to Bahrain-Merida, to re-join Rod Ellingworth, his old DS from his team Sky years.

Landa will be relishing the opportunity to not play second-fiddle when he rides with Bahrain-Merida, where he has been drafted in to replace Vincenzo Nibali, who is off to Trek-Segafredo.

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Landa is notorious for tragically having to sacrifice his own legitimate chances at GC success to shepherd someone else to victory – notably Chris Froome in 2017’s Tour and Richard Carapaz in 2019’s Vuelta. After years of calls to #freelanda, the Basque may finally have his chance.

Movistar will look a very different team in 2020. The evergreen Valverde remains, and is likely to play a large part in mentoring and supporting his young compatriot Enric Mas.

The 24-year-old, who placed second in last year’s Vuelta, has moved across from Deceuninck-Quick-Step, and being thrown into a GC-focussed environment such as Movistar could see him back on several podiums in years to come.

We will no longer see the broad shoulders of Tom Dumoulin in the red jersey of Sunweb in 2020, with the Dutchman instead opting for the yellow of Jumbo-Visma. Sunweb lost their figurehead Dumoulin over the transfer season after the relationship between the team and rider soured, partly due to their management of his rehab and schedule after his race-ending knee injury at the Giro.

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It seems that the German team will now be relying on youngster Sam Oomen and outside-contenders Nicolas Roche and Wilco Kelderman in the GC fight. Although the trio is legitimate stage race podium contenders, don’t be surprised to see Sunweb possibly giving more attention to the hunt for stage victories– something implied through their signing of breakaway-botherer Tiesj Benoot.

Just as we may see less of the Sunweb red jersey on GC podiums in 2020, we may see less of Vincenzo Nibali altogether. Fear not, ‘the shark’ hasn’t swum away for good but has moved across to Trek-Segafredo to join Richie Porte in their GC hunt.

It seems a move mired in disappointment.

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Porte’s star seems to have faded since joining the US licenced team. Of course, that may be due to his unfortunate spate of crashes and a loss of form rather than lack of support and resources at Trek, but I can’t help but feel that the same may happen to Nibali, a man reaching the twilight of his career at 34 years of age. However, sharks are dangerous creatures. Don’t rule them out.

The peloton will look very different in 2020.

The same faces will be there, but will they be smiling or frowning after the decisions made over August’s transfer season. Let’s see.

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