Cycle Sport’s Our Man in the Bunch series ran through the 2012 season, to popular acclaim. An anonymous professional rider sent us a series of dispatches from the peloton, covering all subjects from money, through media to management and more. We reproduce the series here.
Words by Our Man in the Bunch
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Illustration by Simon Scarsbrook
This article originally appeared in Cycle Sport August 2012
It’s no secret that cyclists don’t command the same salaries as Formula 1 drivers, golfers, basketball or football players, but how big are the differences? How about the discrepancy between the stars of the sport and the ‘also-rans’?
Cycling is one of the harder professional sports. The amount of hours’ training, the number of days of competition and the risks of crashing are all high. But despite that, and the fact we’re not as highly paid as football players, I don’t think we have much to complain about with our salaries these days.
You won’t find many pros who started cycling motivated by money. Equally, you won’t find many pros who can retire with the luxury of not having to think about working again. In fact, the majority of us will need to find a job pretty sharpish once our sporting careers are over.
In terms of exact figures, apart from my own salary and those of a few others, my knowledge is little better than that of the general public. It’s not something openly talked about in the bunch, which can make it hard for those of us without an agent when it comes to negotiating. However, based
on the figures that I do know, I can make some reasonable assessments of what various levels
of riders can expect to earn.
The base level is the minimum wage. For ProConti teams, that amount is €27,500, or €23,000 for first-year pros. At WorldTour level, it increases to €35,000 and €24,000 respectively. Most riders enter their pro careers at this minimum level, happy to have got their foot on the first rung of the ladder. However, show something truly exceptional in the under-23 category and you may be lucky enough to have more than one team after your signature, immediately bumping your price up.
In the WorldTour, there won’t be too many experienced riders toiling away for the minimum wage. If you’ve proven yourself enough to warrant being given a contract extension, the team is probably going to pay that bit extra for a rider that they’ve got to know and helped to develop.
The minimum wage has been a welcome development, but I have heard in the past of certain ProContinental teams finding loopholes to get around it. Some riders find sponsors, whose donations to the team are enough to cover their wages, effectively paying their way on to the team.
I have also heard of riders having two contracts: one official UCI contract, and another stating an amount that the rider must pay back to the team each month. That way, the team is able to prove that the correct amounts are being transferred to the rider each month, so no questions are asked and everything appears above board.
The top end of the salary scale is made up of riders who have won the biggest races, like Alberto Contador, Philippe Gilbert and Mark Cavendish. These riders are able to command basic salaries (before bonuses or endorsements) of more than $2.5m, leading to the skewed €264,000 “average wage of a pro cyclist” recently quoted in a UCI report [edit: in February 2012]. On top, they may well have negotiated large bonuses within their contract, and will have a number of endorsements ranging from shoes and shades to watches and cars. While this is a far cry from the neo-pros I just talked about, these champions are generally very generous when it comes to giving gifts and bonuses to team-mates.
The hordes of us who fill the void between these extremes are offered contracts based on
a number of factors. Ability carries the biggest influence, but beyond that, age, nationality, future potential, leadership qualities and publicity generation are all taken into account.
‘Potential’ is a big one. Finish on the podium of one of the Monuments, World Championships
or Grand Tours, and, if you’re not too old, you’ve effectively shown you have the potential to win
one in the future. Make the podium of the Tour of Flanders, for example, and even if you do little else for the rest of the season, you can expect to earn upwards of €250,000 for the following few years. Do it at the Giro or Vuelta and you can double or even triple that figure.
Nationality has played a role in a couple of high-profile cases recently. Matt Goss had a tremendous season in 2011, coinciding perfectly with the creation of the first ever Australian WorldTour team, inflating his price further. Similarly, Bradley Wiggins showed his potential for future Tour de France glory with fourth place in 2009, just as Sky had invested millions of pounds in a cycling team whose aim was to have a British winner of the event within five years.
Publicity generation is an interesting one. We are, after all, moving billboards paid to get exposure for the team sponsors. Most riders assume that just means achieving personal results or helping the team leaders to do so, but some of the more savvy riders spend time generating extra publicity through social media, or devote extra time outside the racing and training schedule helping sponsors with product testing or launches and appearances at trade shows. This can add a certain value to a rider above and beyond simply performing at races.
In a slightly extreme case, Francesco Planckaert did a couple of professional seasons with MrBookmaker.com and Chocolade Jacques a while ago. He didn’t set the world on fire on the bike, but at the time there was a very popular television documentary following his family, so he was a very well-known figure who received a lot of airtime and publicity, justifying his wage despite the lack of results. In a similar vein, ageing champions who are beyond their best will often continue to earn big salaries due to the fact that they are still a ‘big name’ and garner a lot of attention from the public and press.
So how much are we able to earn outside our basic salaries? Well, you can write for a magazine, but they pay like sh*t (You’re fired! — Ed). Diaries or blogs for websites, after-dinner speaking and guest appearances at events or training camps can all bring a little extra money in, the fee obviously depending on how big a rider’s profile is.
I have done talks ranging from free (my local club), to €400 for a two-hour Q&A on my training methods, right up to €1,200 for a 40-minute talk to non-cyclists on motivation and my career. The bigger your profile, the more of these events you’ll be offered and the more you’ll be paid for them.
Endorsements are another option, although these days there are fewer opportunities. When a team is sponsored for everything bike-related, there is little or no room to get a personal sponsorship deal. A few years ago, riders could often choose their shades and shoes, but these days a lot of the teams have sponsorship deals in place for that. Many of us are still able to select our own shoes, but unless you’re a hitter, it’s going to be hard to persuade Sidi to pay you significantly, with bonuses for podium places the common deal.
Prize money is the most lucrative extra income a rider can hope for. Work your backside off for a leader who wins a Grand Tour or World Champs and you will be in for a share of a large sum, and possibly a hefty bonus from the rider and/or team.
Almost all teams split prize money among the riders, but I’ve experienced this in two forms. In some of my teams, the prize money from a race was split equally between the riders who rode that particular race. On another, the prize money was pooled for the entire year and split between the riders based on the number of days they’d competed that season — I’d never been so happy to see my team-mates win on the TV as that year.
The problem with prize money, however, is twofold. Firstly, there is a huge drop-off from winning a race to even being third. Coming between 10th and 20th, the amount is virtually an insult when you consider how hard it is to achieve such a result in a big race. Secondly, the prize money is taxed at source (up to 50 per cent), and some is taken away to pay for anti-doping controls. The amount that lands in your account is often far from what you expected after a top team performance.
The days of being able to do a post-Tour criterium in France virtually every day for the following month are long gone. Not only have those events dwindled over the years, but we are often still required to race through August. That said, Philippe Gilbert did manage to compete in one every evening between finishing the Tour and winning San Sebastian a week later, in 2011. I don’t know how much he earned per evening, but it was probably in excess of €20,000. For my part, even when I was a little-known young pro, I would get €600 for a standard post-Tour crit in France (often in cash), a very welcome extra at the time. My appearances at these events are fewer these days, but on average I would expect €1,500-2,000 per event, with all expenses paid.
The final source of potential extra income is contractual bonuses provided by the team. These also vary between one team and the next. I’ve been on teams where there are no bonuses whatsoever, and another where I’d not only get a bonus for a personal podium place, but also if a team-mate made the podium. The amount varied from a few hundred euros for winning a stage of a smaller race, to €5,000 each if one of us won a ‘Monument’ (which, unfortunately, didn’t happen that year).
Our lives are reasonably comfortable these days, even if few of us are driving around in Ferraris or Lamborghinis. Until TV rights begin (if ever) to filter through to the teams, that won’t change, but it won’t stop us giving every ounce of energy to a sport that is about passion, not money. We’re happiest training, resting, racing and fully concentrating on the sport. So while the extra income can often be enticing, it should never affect our real job, which is to ride a bike as fast as possible.