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November 2001

Unemployment or Opportunities

With the demise of the Mercury/Viatel cycling team, along with Festina and Liquigas, the upper hand in the cycling world has turned full face from the rider's to the teams. No longer is there an overabundance of teams looking for points and riders. For 2002 there are fewer teams picking up riders, and with the new UCI rule that limits teams to a maximum of 25 riders, more teams are not looking to hire, but only to fire. Do these increased chances of unemployment mean destruction or opportunity? I suppose it's only one or the other depending if you find a job. Adding to the problems of riders finding a team are the financial restrictions that many sponsors have because of the recent happenings in the economic market. Previously signed contracts are being re-negotiated and in worst case scenarios the contracts are not even being honored. Is becoming unemployed an opportunity to look for something better or is it only a sign of things to come?

The demise of the Mercury/Viatel Cycling Team should have been an early indication of trouble. That situation left many questions with no apparent answers. Failure to pay riders is nothing new to the European peleton. The UCI has taken steps to protect the riders, requiring any UCI professional team to hold a mandatory three-month bank guarantee towards the riders' salaries. This bank guarantee is held as a security deposit to protect riders from managers who promise the world (and money) and then can't produce it. In the case of John Wordin, the director/manager of the Mercury/Viatel team, his co-sponsor Viatel went bankrupt and stopped their payments to the team. The sad part is that this is not the first time John Wordin has defaulted on payment to riders under contract to ride for him. The first time was the 1997 Comptel Colorado Cyclist team. So the question is, who is to blame? Do we blame the sponsors because they defaulted on their payments, or are the managers responsible to protect the health of the team and its riders?

When the UCI finds out about a team that has defaulted on payment to its riders the normal policy is to suspend the team immediately. This seems like a good regulation, but in the long run it penalizes the riders by not allowing them to continue to earn a living. Under normal circumstances, the three-month bank guarantee would seem to be enough, but in the example of the Mercury/Viatel team, the riders were not paid for up to six months. Suspending a UCI Division 1 team in the middle of the season can be disastrous to an athlete's career. If need be, riders must ride for free just to gain results in order to earn a contract for the following year with a new team. In the very least they have to be allowed to compete and earn some prize money to pay for everyday expenses like food and rent.

I'm sure many of the Mercury/Viatel riders will find teams for next year, but not at the salaries that were quoted to them from the dream maker John Wordin and Mercury. A rider's commitment to a team is mainly based on the financial promises that were made. A financially secure deal for two years is every rider's dream. A half-paid year, a non-selection to the Tour, and a second year contract thrown in the trash would be classified as every rider's nightmare. Again, there is the question of what to do with a very important sponsor and huge supporter of cycling, Mercury? In these times finding money from sponsors is almost impossible. The risk of losing Mercury from the sport outweighs the desire to eliminate the team because of its problems. One remedy would be to keep the sponsor and replace the manager. This has happened before; most notably when Saturn changed hands from Warren Gibson to Tom Schuler. Successful programs rely on the directors' ability to run a team, manage the budget, and avoid making extraordinary promises they are not able to keep. Sure, it's important to win races but it's more important to protect and promote the sponsors' images along with protecting the riders' livelihoods.

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