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Money-driven "two speed peloton" leaves French cycling in the shade

AG2R, Cofidis and Europcar bosses discuss how globalisation and wealth have left French teams fighting for scraps

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…”

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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Simon_MacMichael | 12 years ago

Thanks for the link, Simon. Agree, Inner Ring is one of the best blogs out there.

Simon E | 12 years ago

Interesting dissection of French tax and team finances on the excellent pro cycling blog 'Inner Ring':

jarderich | 12 years ago

You don't have to read much cycling literature to know that trying to forge a career as a foreigner within a French pro team has historically been very difficult.

It was inevitable that the rest of the world would eventually decide to do things for themselves in order to maximise the output of indigenous talent.

The money men are backing the "new breed" of teams because there is a tangeable return on investment. The French have to get with the prgramme if they want to find their own Sugar-daddys.

A bit less of the "Victor Meldrews" would be a start.

Simon E replied to jarderich | 12 years ago
jarderich wrote:

A bit less of the "Victor Meldrews" would be a start.

In a way it's understandable that those who are disadvantaged feel that some measure of correction would be warranted, but French teams have not been the mould-breakers, the progressives looking for change and improvement (e.g. bikes, buses, training methods); they are the traditionalists, and French cycling feels that the sport has its home within their borders. It is surely as hard for them to swallow as for English football when the World & European cups are beyond their reach. But cycling is a different sport to 25 years ago and they are slow or unwilling to adapt. And blaming tax arrangements with Monaco is a bit rich!

If there are 20 teams in the Tour peloton yet only a handful of those teams are well funded enough to be in the faster of the two 'speeds' then that leaves the majority in the slower bracket. So while the ultimage prize might be beyond them that doesn't preclude them from participating and enlivening the race (Voeckler, Sandy Casar and Jérémy Roy, for instance, and Rolland's well executed stage win).

And let's be honest, most of us like to have a moan about how unfair things are now and again.

cat1commuter | 12 years ago

OK, so why is Spain first in the UCI World Tour 2011 rankings, and France 11th? Do Spanish teams have much larger budgets than French teams? Where are all the great French riders scoring points in highly paid non-French teams?

Aapje replied to cat1commuter | 12 years ago
cat1commuter wrote:

OK, so why is Spain first in the UCI World Tour 2011 rankings, and France 11th? Do Spanish teams have much larger budgets than French teams?

No, they use doping and the courts & their federation protect them. This was clearly demonstrated in the operación Puerto doping case where the evidence was shelved to protect spanish cyclists, tennis players and footballers.

noddy69 | 12 years ago

Train harder than the money men  19 Really without all the time spent doing interviews and promos etc that all the bigger teams have to do with their elite squads sure dont you have more time to train...simples.

step-hent | 12 years ago

And once again, French pro-teams and riders moan about a two-tier sport. I can see why, say, a national federation would be in a position to moan that none of the good athletes want to be cyclists any more because there is too much money in other sports, but teams are really just commercial enterprises with the purpose of serving their sponsors. So some French commercial entities are complaining that non-French commercial entities have more money than they do, and that they can't compete. Boo hoo. Personally, I think it's good for the sport to have a range of budgets - bike races are sometimes won on pure guts, and sometimes the best riders to watch don't win - just like Voeckler in the Tour. Perhaps they should stop worrying about the budget differences, and start focussing on what they can do to keep bringing the fight to the bigger teams. Keep doing that, and they might pick up some bigger sponsors and increase their budgets...

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