The world of the rider agent is not one that is always well understood within cycling. Past accusations by teams of 'cowboy agents' working deals behind teams' backs and getting their clients in trouble with Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) rules breaches led to a formal licensing process being instituted by cycling's governing body in 2010.
There are exceptions to the requirement that all rider agents must be licensed, specifically they can be a close family member, a practising lawyer or work for free. Riders also represent themselves, however, the majority of athletes within the men's professional peloton have come to rely on professional rider agents and agencies to handle their affairs.
Cycling Central talked to Mark Isaacs, Australian and Asian regional agent for SEG International, about how the cycling industry operates behind the scenes. Isaacs personally represents Commonwealth Games gold medalist Steele von Hoff (Bennelong-SwissWellness) as well as a cadre of strong youngsters from Australia and New Zealand.
In this week's podcast, our host Christophe Mallet has a chat with Steel Von Hoff, recent winner of the Men's Commonwealth Games Road race and is joined by Sophie Smith, Matthew Keenan and Wes Sulzberger to review the queen of the classics Paris-Roubaix, and preview Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
"Cycling is becoming a lot more of a business," said Isaacs," and the role that agents play now in that is becoming more and more important.
"Back in the day, almost all the contact happened between the team and the rider themselves and that's not happening anymore.
"Some do represent themselves, others have family do it, but a lot of riders are recognising the benefits of having an agent in their corner. Whether that be for the increased salary or additional options for contracts at the end of the year."
The pitch for young cyclists, in particular, is a strong one. Young men who have dedicated their lives to being fast on a bike aren't necessarily the savviest when it comes to complex business relationships, nor do they have the contacts within the industry.
Once a rider has been identified as a rising talent within the sport, it's almost immediately expected that they will have some sort of representation.
"If I see a rider who I think has what it takes," said Isaacs, "I will generally contact a rider directly to gain more of an understanding of their ambitions within the sport.
"For the younger riders, I always prefer to involve the parents from an early stage. It's extremely important that they are across any discussions we may have.
"From there, they might want a bit of information, so there's a conversation about what our role would be with them."
"Basically we take care of the stuff off the bike so they can focus on what is required on the bike."
With a larger agency like SEG, that involves in-house legal support, public relations and social media experts, whereas a solo agent would deal with each requirement by themselves or outsource.
Agent payments don't really kick in much at this level, as they take a percentage of the final contract rather than fee-based arrangements that, for instance, most lawyers would use. In Australian Continental teams, most of a rider's earnings are made up from prizes at races, though overseas teams do have more money to throw around.
The off-season shift in the rules for WorldTour races, reducing team sizes, has seen a change in the industry. The slight team reductions have meant that fewer spots are available on WorldTour rosters and agents have to work harder to place their clients in the top division of the sport.
"There are more riders fighting for fewer spots," said Isaacs. "We’re also seeing development teams becoming more prevalent in the sport – some aligned with World Tour teams, others not. In Australia, that's teams like Bennelong-SwissWellness, Drapac-EF and Mobius Bridgelane.
"World Tour teams are also spending more time in planning and development of talent, so you’re seeing more riders picked up at a younger age and more attention being paid to the development of those riders.”
The process of signing a rider to a team isn't necessarily the most transparent for fans of the sport. Speculation ramps up during the Tour de France, but there is no real confirmation until the August 1 cut-off, the UCI-mandated date when teams can recruit riders for the coming season. 'Recruit' is interpreted very narrowly by the UCI in this provision, it refers only to the finalisation of the contract.
That requirement aside, there is nothing to stop riders and teams negotiating and coming to terms well before the supposed cut-off date - it's just not official. While the Tour de France used to be the point where a lot of deals were getting introduced and negotiated, that process is getting earlier every season.
"Yeah, it is," Isaacs said. "We know which of our riders are coming off contract at the end of the year and we work to promote those riders through our team networks.
"We've already started that, our first one was during the Classics. So March, and we're already promoting our riders. It really is a 12-month business, there's never really much downtime.
"Generally speaking, there is a hierarchy in regards to contracts being finalised. Obviously, the WorldTour deals take place first, then it trickles down to Pro Continental, then further down to Continental. So generally the Continental deals are signed much later in the year."
When a rider takes that next step to WorldTour level, the exposure of the rider goes up, salary goes up and the workload of the agent also increases significantly.
"Yes, certainly the work-rate increases for us (agents) when they reach that WorldTour level," said Isaacs. "At that level, there comes a lot more scrutiny of the riders’ performance, both good and bad.
"For the bad, we’re there to counsel the rider to ensure they are ready to bounce back. For the good, we’re also there to discuss endorsements and anything else that may come the rider’s way.
"It's about choosing the right brands and image for the athlete, making sure it doesn't clash with the team's brands, that sort of thing."
Perhaps the prime example of this during the current season has been Peter Sagan's deal with 100%, whose goggles accompany him onto every podium.
"When you have a rider like Peter (Sagan) on your client list, then you’ll be a very busy man. His agent would be approached regularly with endorsement requests, and it’s up to Peter and his agent to discuss which brands best suit Peter’s profile, whilst also taking into account conflicts with existing team sponsors.
"The deal with 100% goggles is quite unique to our sport, but you can see they are achieving what they set out to do, and that is to create a talking point.”
While many agents operate alone, Isaacs is part of one of the larger agencies in the industry, Sports Entertainment Group International (SEG). They run their own development squad, which has seen talents like Australian Nick Schultz (currently riding for Caja Rural–Seguros RGA) and WorldTour neo-pro Fabio Jakobsen (Quick-Step Floors).
The Dutch company is best known for having riders like Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors) on the books, as well as prominent Australians Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) and Rory Sutherland (UAE Team Emirates).
The internationalisation of the agency in 2018 has seen Isaacs brought on board, not just for the riders he brings, but also for the contacts and increased global coverage it provides SEG.
"My two directors – Martijn and Eelco Berkhout – are two really genuine guys," said Isaacs. "They’ve been in this game for over 10 years and have really close ties to all of the teams... and it was their goal to have a network of rider agents around the world.
"So when the riders come down for races like the Tour Down Under, if there's anything happening I'm around to help out. The same goes for North American races and for Scandinavia with our Danish agent as well."
It's not a particularly visible part of cycling, but the modern agent is a key player in the world of cycling and is an intriguing part of the sport always worth keeping an eye on.