The slew of race cancellations has been met with disappointment in all corners of the cycling world, but nowhere has the pain been felt more keenly than among the riders who are still without contracts for 2021.
There are nine riders who were in the WorldTour last year but who have no team for this season, and every race that’s scrubbed off the calendar reduces the chances of their services being called upon.
It was clear early on that the COVID-19 pandemic would make for an odd transfer market, and the uncertainty surrounding team finances and now the 2021 calendar has left a number of high-profile riders unemployed and cut adrift.
Many have already taken decisions to retire or return to the amateur ranks, but, as January turns to February, nine are still hanging in there, not ready to hang up their wheels.
The Belgian rider has recently returned from a two-week solo training camp in Calpe, organised and funded by himself. One ride gave a Training Test Score of 332, which he likened to racing Brabantse Pijl, so he says he’s ready should he get that knock on the door.
Vermote was told in October that his one-year contract at Cofidis would not be renewed. It has been widely assumed he would be picked up at some point but casual conversations have not progressed to concrete proposals, and time has dragged on and on.
As such, it feels an age ago that Vermote was the talk of the Tour de France for the peloton-pulling that helped Marcel Kittel to five stage wins in 2017. He was one of Mark Cavendish’s favourite domestiques while at QuickStep and he followed the Manxman to Dimension Data in 2018, where he’d have more of a leadership role in the Classics.
After a poor season all round in 2019, he joined Cofidis for their first season back in the WorldTour, but it was only a one-year contract, and it turned out to be a bad year to have signed one of those. Cavendish has actually been trying to help him find a spot, but to no avail – Cavendish of course had problems securing a contract for himself, let alone anyone else.
Vermote is refusing to set himself a deadline for finding a team and has refused to seriously contemplate retirement. “I’m not done yet,” he told Cyclingnews. “I still love cycling, I’m physically still OK, and I’m only 31, so I still believe I can do something in cycling.”
Another Belgian, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck was once considered the country’s next Classics star, but his career hasn’t followed that trajectory. He spoke of a ‘second chance’ when he joined Greg Van Avermaet at CCC Team in 2019 but now finds himself facing retirement after the team folded.
He has been training in Belgium throughout the winter, although mainly on a mountain bike. That’s because he doesn’t actually own a road bike. He had to give his old Giant back to CCC Team at the end of last season, and so has had to work extra hard when going out with the training group of Yves Lampaert and other colleagues of his former team, Deceuninck-QuickStep.
“They’re on their race bikes and I’m on the mountain bike,” he told Het Nieuwsblad recently. “When we mainly train on the road, I put sand tyres on instead of the rough tread, but I still have to push hard to be able to follow them – a good workout.”
Van Keirsbulck previously indicated he would give himself until the end of January, saying: “If nothing is concrete then, it is too late.” Cyclingnews has contacted him for an update this week but he did not respond.
Along with Van Keirsbulck, Michał Paluta is the only other CCC Team rider still without plans, after Fran Ventoso settled for retirement earlier this month. 12 months ago, he set out on his debut WorldTour season in the national champion’s jersey of Poland, but that sense of morale has now been severely dented.
“I’m trying to stay… I want to say ‘calm’ but I’m not so calm right now,” the 25-year-old told Cyclingnews.
Paluta, who graduated from the old CCC Sprandi team one year after the merger with BMC Racing, was not fully satisfied with his first WorldTour campaign, although he did finish his debut Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España. In the off-season, he, like Vermote, has undertaken a solo training camp – travelling to Mallorca for two weeks earlier this month.
Since returning to Poland, he even went back to his roots and raced the cyclo-cross nationals on a whim, when a friend who owns a bike shop gave him a bike and a jersey. “Even if it was only for fun, I said to myself after the race, ‘fuck, I love this. I cannot give up.”
As such, despite the lack of offers, he has not set himself a deadline and has even begun to consider the fact he might now have to be looking at trying to find something for 2022 rather than 2021. “That would be the worst-case scenario, but I don’t feel I’m at the age to retire from cycling.”
Mihkel Raim (27, Israel Start-Up Nation)
Israel Start-Up Nation didn’t quite overhaul their roster but the arrivals of riders like Chris Froome, Mike Woods, and Sep Vanmarcke was always going to squeeze others out, and one of the victims was Mihkel Raim. The versatile Estonian sprinter does not hide his dissatisfaction, pointing out the fact that he was on the team all the way through their journey from Continental outfit to the WorldTour, bringing in 13 wins along the way.
“At first I was looking for a WorldTour team, but I realised it wasn’t going happen,” he told Cyclingnews. “Then I was pretty sure a ProConti team would pick me up – I realised I’d need to race on minimum wage but I didn’t have a problem with that for a year. But there was no offer and no interest at all. So I said to myself I can do one year at Conti level, but even to find a Conti team at the moment is a nightmare.”
Raim, who is staying with a friend in Girona to escape the harsh Estonian winter, has received an open-ended offer from the Pro Immo amateur team where he raced in 2015 before joining Israel.
They would cover his accommodation, equipment, and expenses. He’s in discussions with one Continental team, who are trying to find the finances to bring him on board, but can fall back on the French amateur scene – which he says is actually more stable financially than some Continental options, but harder to bounce back from.
“If at the end of this year I don’t find a contract, I’ll make up my mind to stop, but I never thought I want to stop because I worked so hard the last 10 years and I proved I can win pro races,” he said. “I think it’s just bad luck and a shit situation.”
Dani Navarro (27, Israel Start-Up Nation)
Navarro is the other former Israel Start-Up Nation rider shown the door. He came across in the Katusha-Alpecin takeover, given he still had a another year on his contract, but he has since been deemed surplus to requirements.
Navarro is a veteran of the pro peloton, riding for Astana, Saxo Bank, and Cofidis over the past 16 years, clocking up 20 Grand Tour appearances in the process. Despite his 38th birthday approaching in July, retirement is not on his mind.
“Although it’s difficult to find something in these times, I’m still training as if I had a contract,” he told Cyclingnews. “You never know what might happen.”
The Swiss is another rider in his late 30s who’s not ready to call it a day, and is also training hard in the hope that something might come up.
Wyss spent 11 years at BMC Racing before joining the team now known as Qhubeka Assos in 2019. He won the Swiss national road race title in 2015 but has spent his career as a domestique, becoming one of Richie Porte’s trusted allies when the Tasmanian joined in 2016.
The team merged with CCC in 2019 and Wyss followed Swiss bike brand BMC to NTT Pro Cycling, who came close to folding at the end of last year. He hoped to be among the riders they offered contracts to when funds were secured at the last minute, but they went elsewhere.
Wyss recently told Swiss newspaper La Liberté he was in discussions with ProTeams and did not want his final act in the sport to have been making up numbers in a pandemic-affected season.
The Australian is in a rather different boat, given he is not so much looking for a contract as looking to recover full function in his right leg. McCarthy crashed out of the of the Vuelta a España on stage 7 in late October, suffering what was described as a ‘complex knee trauma’, involving severe distortion and ligament damage.
He has spent the winter between Holland and Germany undergoing extensive treatment and rehabilitation and at this stage still does not know if he’ll make a full recovery.
McCarthy, an all-rounder with a punchy sprint, turned pro with Tinkoff-Saxo in 2013 and joined Bora-Hansgrohe in 2017. After winning a stage of the Tour Down Under in 2016, he went on to win the Cadel Evans race and a stage of the Tour of the Basque Country in 2018. He had not negotiated a contract for 2021 before he headed to the Vuelta, and so his recovery is now a largely solo pursuit.
McCarthy has not responded to interview requests but he took to social media 10 days ago to post a photo of his knee being able to bend. He described it as a major milestone and said that “with or without a full recovery” he considers himself lucky and, in any case, is “ready to fight on”.
The 29-year-old was one of the large contingent of Kazakhstani riders on the Astana team, which faced serious financial pressures last year, but it’s not the case that they looked at reducing that quota of home riders, even when Canadian company Premier Tech arrived as co-title sponsor. There were nine Kazakstani’s on the roster last year, and there are nine this year.
Six were given contract extensions and two new faces were brought in, but Fominykh, a ruler who has twice been Kazakh national time trial champion, was not renewed. We have no recent news on his situation but he is yet to declare his retirement.
The other Kazakh rider shown the door was Zhandos Bizhigitov, who has already announced his retirement. He assessed his options but called it a day when it was clear they were thin on the ground. “Not even Vino-Astana Motors [the team’s Continental arm] called back,” he said.
Another rider let go by Astana, the Colombian came through the Manzana Postobon set-up before heading to Europe with a pro contract in 2019. He raced the Vuelta a España with Manzana Postobon but did not get a Grand Tour opportunity at Astana. In fact, he was limited to 27 race days in his first season and 25 last year.
The 28-year-old hasn’t publicly announced any plans in the new year, and contacts in Colombia have no news on his situation.
What the others have done
The list of WorldTour riders out of contract was more that twice the size at the start of the year. Many have retired or decided to step down to the amateur ranks.
Although riders like Laurens De Vreese and Jan Polanc secured contracts late in 2020, there has not been an encouraging return since the turn of the year. So far, former Cofidis rider Stéphane Rossetto is the only one who has found a team, finalising a deal in the past couple of days.
- Will Clarke (35, Trek-Segafredo): Retired
- Jon Dibben (25, Lotto Soudal): Retired
- Fran Ventoso (38, CCC Team): Retired
- Brian Van Goethem (29, Lotto Soul): Retired
- Luka Pibernik (27, Bahrain McLaren): Retired
- Stéphane Rossetto (33, Cofidis): Has just agreed terms with a French team and announcement expected in the coming days.
- Léo Vincent (25, Groupama-FDJ): Back to amateur ranks in France with CC Etupes
- Marco Mathis (26, Cofidis): Focusing on the track with German federation
- Grega Bole (35, Bahrain McLaren): Now in Dubai with the Al Ahli Shabab club
- Rasmus Iversen (23, Lotto Soudal): Back to amateur ranks in Denmark with Hernin CK.
- Carlos Betancur (31, Movistar): Back to amateur ranks in Colombia
- Shotaro Iribe (31, NTT Pro Cycling): Back to amateur ranks in Japan with Yowamushi Pedal Cycling
- Luis Villlalobos (22, EF Pro Cycling): Remains provisionally suspended over a positive doping test.