The concept of the “peloton à deux vitesses” (two speed peloton) under which the sport of pro cycling has been said to be divided between those riders who gain an edge through doping and those who ride clean, has been around for a number of years; now, in France, the phrase is also being used to describe the financial muscle which enables some teams to shrug aside their rivals, leaving French outfits at a disadvantage.
It’s similar to what, in football, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has termed “financial doping;” the ability of certain teams – Manchester City and Real Madrid were among the examples cited by the Frenchman – to deploy financial firepower that leaves teams that strive to keep within lesser budgets struggling in their wake.
There is one important difference with the situation in football, however; while UEFA President Michel Platini’s much vaunted Financial Fair Play rules have yet to come into effect and there will be a transitional period to allow the currently free-spending teams to comply, within cycling teams must keep within the annual budgets notified to the UCI.
If it is “financial doping,” it’s at least a legal form of performance enhancement.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that some teams – BMC, Team Sky, and the now-merged RadioShack and Leopard Trek are among the examples cited – have financial clout that others cannot match.
And as cycling has become more internationalised in recent years, France has perhaps suffered more than the other European countries considered to be the sport’s traditional heartland.
In 2000, six French teams – AG2R, Bonjour (the predecessor to what is now Europcar), Cofidis, Credit Agricole, Festina and Francaise des Jeux – competed in the Tour de France, with only Bonjour having to rely on a wild card entry.
This year, AG2R La Mondiale was the only French team to be guaranteed a starting place in the Tour due to its ProTeam status. The others – Professional Continental outfits Cofidis, Europcar, FDJ and Saur-Sojasun – filled up the four wild card places.
Next year, two top-flight teams, AG2R and FDJ, already have guaranteed spots.
Last week, Eurosport France brought together the managers of three of those teams, Eric Boyer of Cofidis, AG2R’s Vincent Lavenu and the Europcar boss Jean-René Bernaudeau to discuss the situation especially in the light of the recent transfer season that saw big name riders head anywhere but the country that is home to cycling’s biggest race.
“We don’t have the means to pay a rider a million euro a year,” says Boyer. “It’s an eighth of our budget.”
Bernaudeau goes further, citing the example of world number one Philippe Gilbert, signed by BMC, which has an annual budget estimated at €20 million. “Gilbert, that’s the [Europcar] team budget,” he reflects.
One issue singled out as particularly hurting those teams based in France is the country’s tax regime, with social security payments, including those made by the employer, highlighted by Boyer as factors that do not permit a rider in France “to be paid as much as an Italian, a Briton or a Spaniard.”
Moreover, he blames one of France’s great national heroes, General de Gaulle, no less, for a fiscal agreement with the Principality of Monaco that means that French riders could not benefit from tax breaks available to the likes of Gilbert who have chosen to make it their home.
“The Belgian riders all live in Monaco, they negotiate their taxes with the Principality. The fiscal status of a Frenchman in Monaco is the equivalent of their French status. Thank you, General de Gaulle!”
During the recent transfer season, Europcar did try to sign another Monaco-based rider who ended up going to BMC, Thor Hushovd, while AG2R and Cofidis both harboured ambitions of getting Gilbert himself on board.
Lavenu, however, confesses that his AG2R team’s pursuit of the Belgian was doomed to failure. “In spirit, it wasn’t a closed issue. But we weren’t capable of bringing the financial package that he expected. He made a reasonable choice in relation to his status.”
Boyer reflects the general sentiment of the trio when he said, “It’s clear that today the peloton is split into two categories – the rich and the poor. The owner of BMC is a millionaire, Quick Step and RadioShack have huge amounts of money. I’ll leave it to you to guess which category the French teams fall under.”
“Foreign riders used to come to France because they are certain of finding structured and solid teams that pay salaries on time, with no nasty surprises. Today, that doesn’t make a difference. All the teams pay well,” adds Lavenu.
That situation is compounded by the arrival of teams such as Sky that give talented young British riders a natural home, especially given its links to the Olympic track programme. Where once the likes of Bradley Wiggins or David Millar headed to France to build their road careers, nowadays the likes of Alex Dowsett prove a natural fit for the British team.
It’s a similar situation with more experienced, proven riders; the likes of Filippo Pozzato and Janez Brajkovic as well as French champion Sylvain Chavanel all turned down the chance to join Europcar. Meanwhile, the young German talent, John Degenkolb, rejected the approach of AG2R when his HTC-Highroad team was broken up.
"Our reputation as a bit of an attacking team can put some off,” says Europcar’s Bernaudau, before adding, more pragmatically, “We have a function as a business with accounts to settle. Then all the agents who circle around them, all the money that the big names demand, that doesn’t make me want to work with them.”
For AG2R’s Lavenu, however, there’s another issue. "French teams are too self-centered,” he asserted, adding that France had been too slow to respond to the opening up of cycling to the world. That was partly reflected in his fellow nationals within cycling still adopting a Franco-centric view of the sport at a time when English is increasingly becoming its lingua franca.
The three managers are united, however, when asked how French teams could respond to the threat posed by their richer counterparts abroad – “Training,” they chorus.
“Nowadays, we are condemned to train [riders],” says Boyer. “The rich pay, we train.” It’s not a viewpoint wholly endorsed by Bernaudau. “We can live without what the media term stars,” he insisted. “At Europcar, it’s our history, we don’t sell, we make.”
Boyer cites the examples of two of French cycling’s big hopes, Rudy Molard and Adrien Petit, runner up in the under-23 road race at the world championships in Copenhagen.
“I don’t think they’d be embarrassed if they were up against Degenkolb,” he reveals. But, he admits that another rider who first turned pro with his Cofidis team, the Estonian Rein Taaramae, “will be difficult to keep” once he gets a big win.
For AG2R’s Lavenu, this reflects the new global competition “with its new capital flowing from Australia to Russia and perhaps even Brazil or China.”
Moreover, the situation that has evolved in recent years makes it impossible for French teams to take the stars that they do unearth to the very highest level. Gilbert may be Belgian, but as a native French speaker was groomed by FDJ for six years before heading to Silence-Lotto in 2009, the same year that Chavanel, after nine years in France, left for the other big Belgian team, Quick Step.
Only Voeckler, fiercely loyal to Bernaudau and as much a one-club man as former Southampton footballer Matthew Le Tissier was, has resisted the temptation to move elsewhere, and is the only truly global French cycling star who will be racing for a French team in 2012.
"Because Europcar’s policy was to bet everything on Thomas,” says Boyer, “the year that has just unfolded has proved them right, but that depends on it continuing for them.” The AG2R boss leaves his next sentence unfinished; the missing words are obvious. “Because if he gets injured…”
However, there are some crumbs of comfort, such as FDJ’s accession to WorldTour status and a global economic situation that is also hurting the biggest teams, leading, for example to the merger between RadioShack and Leopard Trek.
“The mergers between teams bears witness also to the financial difficulties of the big teams,” maintains Lavenu. “Let’s not forget we are in a time of crisis. They’re faced with the necessity of having to join forces.”
The last word goes to Bernaudau, the man whose team perhaps did more than any other to fly the tricouleur this year with Voeckler wearing the maillot jaune for ten days at a Tour de France in which Pierre Rolland emerged from his shadow on the final Friday to win at Alpe d’Huez and set himself up to win the best young rider’s classification.
"At the départ of the Tour, we’ll have the same number of legs as them. And then, the big teams, what does that actually mean?” he says, giving the example of one that failed to match the hype of its launch at the start of 2011. “We saw the ‘big team’ Leopard Trek this year…”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.