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The weekly spin: Ineos courting Carapaz highlights need for WorldTour budget cap

Even though they didn’t factor in the race, Team Ineos is now at the center of the narrative surrounding the 2019 Giro d’Italia champion.

Ineos didn’t win a stage at the Giro, or do much to influence the general classification; its top-ranked rider was 21-year-old Pavel Sivakov, who finished ninth overall and second in the youth classification.

But according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, the Italian sports newspaper under the same ownership umbrella as the Giro d’Italia, Team Ineos has an arrangement with race winner Richard Carapaz to leave Movistar next year and join the British squad on a three-year deal.

Citing sources close to the negotiation, La Gazzetta reports that Carapaz is currently contracted with Movistar on an annual salary of 150,000 euros; the deal with Ineos is believed to be ten times that amount. Carapaz is represented by agent Giuseppe Acquadro, who also works with young Colombians Egan Bernal and Ivan Sosa, both scooped up by Ineos following promising rides at the Tour de l’Avenir.

Bernal, 22, and Sosa, 21, are viewed as two of the most talented climbers of their generation. Bernal was to lead Team Ineos at the Giro d’Italia before breaking his collarbone; Sosa rode in support of Sivakov and Tao Geoghegan Hart, 24, before the British rider crashed out on Stage 13.

Richard Carapaz is the first Ecuadorian rider to win a Grand Tour.

It’s impossible to predict how Bernal would have performed in his debut as a Grand Tour leader, and disrespectful to Carapaz to suggest Bernal would have won, but it’s fair to suggest that the Colombian climber would have impacted the dynamics involved in the fight for the maglia rosa. He’s that good.

Team Sky, the British squad that was rebranded as Ineos last month, has won six of the past seven Tours de France, with three different riders, and has the largest budget among the sport’s 18 WorldTour teams, rumored to be somewhere around 45 million euros.

WorldTour teams such as Movistar and Sunweb are believed to operate on a budget about half of what is spent to fund Team Ineos — a figure reported to be increasing under the backing of Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man and the majority shareholder of Ineos, a privately owned UK chemicals company.

The team’s Grand Tour leader, Chris Froome, turned 34 a few weeks ago. Geraint Thomas, the current Tour de France champion, turned 33 five days later. Both riders have stated their goal to contend for victory at the Tour in July, where Bernal will almost certainly once again ride in a super domestique role.

From a roster-building perspective, Ineos signing Carapaz makes perfect sense. Froome and Thomas are veterans, with only a few years left to contend for Grand Tour victory. Bernal, Sivakov, Sosa, and Geoghegan Hart are a decade younger; talented but still lacking experience. Carapaz, who turned 26 during his week in the maglia rosa, splits the gap, a Grand Tour winner on the rise, with several strong seasons ahead of him. The team is now covered in the present, the near future, and the distant future.

But from a sporting perspective, Ineos signing Carapaz is a disaster, yet another glaring example of why professional cycling is in drastic need of a budget cap. It’s something UCI president David Lappartient has spoken about several times since he took office in 2017.

“When the viewer sees eight riders of the team dictating the pace and locking down the race, they quickly change channels to watch a soap opera,” Lappartient said last year. “The ball is in our court, it’s up to the UCI to make sure that its races are attractive. I’m against an individual salary cap. If a team wants to pay a rider 8 million euros, that’s not a problem, but I think we could regulate the overall payroll budget of the teams, to balance their strengths.

“Team Sky has Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome and Egan Bernal, three riders who could finish first, second and third at the Tour de France. However, in the interest of cycling it is better if the best riders are in different teams.”

And if recent reporting proves accurate, add Richard Carapaz to that list. It’s important to remember that this rumor has not been substantiated by either party, and it’s possible this is a case of Acquadro floating the rumor about to raise Carapaz’s market value.

Last week, during a live analysis show broadcast across Eurosport’s social media channels, former Team Sky rider Bradley Wiggins responded to a question about the Carapaz rumors by calling it a “strangling of the sport.”

“We’re talking about Bernal, [Thomas], Froome, [Michal] Kwiatkowski, [Wout] Poels… when the lead group gets down to ten, five of them are going to be Ineos,” Wiggins said. “It’s a physical display, and I know that because I benefited from it. It’s a physical demonstration of watts and threshold powers, and it doesn’t allow so much for this kind of spectacle racing.

“By adding another big major Grand Tour winner in there it feels like there’s a bit of a strangling of the sport, because who else is left now to enjoy these moments? Nibali is 35, he’s not around forever. [Ineos] has got Bernal, they’ve got Sivakov, they’ve got the future of the sport in one team. And I worry, where is all the other talent?”

Following Thomas’ Tour win last year, French newspaper Libération cited an unnamed French team director who put the situation succinctly. “The problem in cycling isn’t doping any more,” he said. “It’s money.”

The notion of budget caps has been endorsed by some of the sport’s biggest stars, including Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali. Even media outlets outside of the sport, such as the National Law Review, have explored the need for budget caps due to Team Sky’s dominance.

Several reasonable suggestions around a WorldTour budget cap have been made on this site by contributors Spencer Martin, in 2017, and Stephanie Constand, last year.

The general idea is a soft-cap on all teams competing at the World Tour and Pro Continental level, with a luxury tax for offenders exceeding the cap; the resulting revenue would be distributed to the remaining World Tour teams whose budgets remain under the tax threshold.

“For every potential excess dollar spent over the threshold, they would pay an ever-increasing tax rate,” Martin wrote. “This would allow the biggest sponsors and teams to continue to infuse money into the sport, while using these massive amounts of money to subsidize the payrolls of the smaller-budget teams… This tax would help on two fronts. It would incentivize team backers to scale back wage inflation, but if the billionaire backers are still inclined to spend exorbitant amounts on rider salaries, they would be putting money straight into their rivals’ coffers to sign away their top riders.”

And Lappartient has been clear that it is budget caps, not salary caps, that he’s in favor of implementing. Teams should be free to choose what to spend on any one rider, he’s stated, but they shouldn’t have an inexhaustible pool of cash.

“We have to be able to pay an athlete at the price we want, but if we pay a lot for a rider, we have a little less money and that rebalances the forces,” Lappartient said in 2017. “The objective is to have attractive races, and not that a team has the best riders in the world and blocks the race.”

There are reasonable criticisms of budget caps to be made. It’s not as simple as it sounds. The legality of budget caps in international and European sports law remains to be seen. The system could find itself rife with difficulties regarding policing and enforcement.

As Constand wrote, “For the UCI, the entire scheme could transform into a convoluted exercise in forensic accounting just to ensure fair implementation and the closing of legal loopholes.”

In 2017, Froome became the third person to win the Tour de France and Vuelta a España in the same year. He went on to win the 2018 Giro d’Italia, holding all three Grand Tour titles at the same time.

Froome took criticism of the idea several steps further when asked about his team’s domination of Grand Tours during the 2017 Vuelta a España, which he won two months after taking his fourth Tour de France title.

“It is in some ways ‘unfair’ the support we have in general at Team Sky compared to other teams,” Froome said. “If you take that away, what do teams have to strive for? Why are you working harder? To win more races? To take that away, it’s almost as if we are becoming communists. So everyone is going to be the same? We should all ride the same bikes? We should all have the same equipment sponsors? We should eat the same rice and porridge each morning? Where do you draw the line?”

Froome’s teammate, Michal Kiwatkowski, presented his argument another way on Twitter last year. “Sagan dominance = exciting. Quick Step classics dominance = exciting. BMC TTT dominance = exciting. Sky grand tours dominance = boring, so let’s turn cycling upside down.”

Some of these are valid points; some of this hyperbolic. However none are a strong enough argument to counter this simple fact — if one team is allowed to buy up all the talent in the sport, interest in the Tour de France, and by virtue of that the rest of professional cycling, will continue to wane.

For all of the anger directed at Froome and his teammates on the roads of France in July, it’s not due to Froome’s vanilla persona, but rather his team’s complete and stifling dominance of the race. (And yes, also controversies surrounding TUEs, jiffy bags, and salbutamol levels.) In general, cycling fans don’t detest repeat winners as much as they grow angry when they feel they’ve been robbed of anything resembling suspenseful competition.

The same pro team controlling the Tour de France for years on end is nothing new. Lance Armstrong’s US Postal Service/Discovery Channel squad won the race for seven years straight; each year its Tour roster was a bit stronger than its previous iteration. Miguel Indurain’s Banesto team won the Tour for five consecutive years.

Like Armstrong’s manager Johan Bruyneel, and Indurain’s manager José-Miguel Echavarri, Ineos manager Dave Brailsford has assembled a squad around Tour de France domination and expanded that mentality to all three Grand Tours — and, thus far, with three different riders.

In 2018, Team Sky won the Tour de France for the sixth time in seven years, with three different riders. The team’s 2018 budget was estimated at USD$42 million, and is believed to be higher in 2019.

But it’s not the same situation today. Bruyneel and Echavarri had a once-in-a-generation rider to build a team around; Brailsford, it seems, has a a once-in-a-generation budget to build a team around. It’s an all-star roster that grows stronger every year.

As greedy as it seems on its face, I don’t fault Brailsford for courting Carapaz, or Radcliffe for investing heavily into Tour de France victories. They’re using all the resources available to them to field the most successful pro cycling team money can buy. They’re operating within the guidelines (or lack thereof) of the sport’s governing body.

I certainly don’t fault Carapaz for signing with the team offering the greatest salary; professional cycling is an exceedingly difficult sport, fraught with danger, and riders are wise to capitalize on every opportunity while they can. It’s a good move for him, albeit a bad move for the sport in general.

Instead, I fault the UCI for doing nothing in the face of a problem that other sports have handled with varying degrees of success. In the US, Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) have both implemented a luxury tax, or competitive balance tax; the National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL) both have a hard salary cap in place.

Back in 2012, the UCI Athletes Commission agreed that a more equal distribution of wealth was needed in professional cycling; nothing came of it. Seven years later, the gap between the richest and poorest WorldTour teams has only gotten worse.

What we have today is a situation where the sport’s richest team is plucking the best riders out of the Tour de l’Avenir, plucking first-time Grand Tour winners from other teams, and making it exceedingly difficult for other teams to convince potential sponsors they have any real shot at winning the sport’s biggest race.

Last year, there was reporting that indicated a budget cap would be part of the UCI’s 2020 WorldTour reforms, though when those impending changes were announced, there was no mention of team budgets. Instead, the focus was on the new WorldTour calendar, which will consist of the new UCI Classics Series (around 20 one-day races), current WorldTour stage races, and the three Grand Tours.

Rather than tackling a growing inequality among the highest-profile teams competing at the sport’s biggest event, the UCI renamed and reclassified its WorldTour calendar.

Bundle the races however you like, but as long as one team is allowed to buy up the talent at the top end of the sport and stifle competition, the UCI’s WorldTour reforms have missed the mark.

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