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Key Takeaways: 2023's Intriguing Free-Agent Market
Breaking down why there are so many stars still available on the free-agent market as the 2023 season quickly approaches
New BTP Podcast: My co-host Andrew Vontz and I sit down with YouTube sensation and Jumbo-Visma strategic advisor Lanterne Rouge (aka Patrick Brow) to talk about the major looming questions and storylines for the upcoming 2023 season
Welcome. We’ve now officially entered the 2023 pro cycling season, Costa Blanca team camps are underway, kits/bikes are being handed out and the rosters of nearly every team should be all but finalized considering the WorldTour road season kicks off in a week in Adelaide, Australia with the Tour Down Under.
However, even as we’ve already entered the new season, a significant number of teams still have a few free roster spots while a few high-profile riders are still on the market (especially if we operate under the assumption that the rumored Mark Cavendish/Astana deal isn’t a sure-thing). And, with every team entering a fresh three-year promotion/relegation fight when the UCI point counters zeroed out at midnight on January 1st, it would be smart for teams with weaker-than-average rosters to take a close look over the list of currently unemployed riders who had decent point-generating campaigns in the 2022 season. After all, Domenico Pozzovivo and Simon Clarke, both of whom put up significant results for their respective teams in 2022 (including winning a Tour de France stage in the case of Clarke) were incredibly late free-agent additions last season.
In an attempt to identify which teams are even eligible to make an extremely late (or early, depending on your perspective), let’s take a look at the roster space remaining on the rosters of teams who finished in the top 22 of the UCI point rankings during the 2022 season.
Roster Spots Remaining on Top 22 UCI Teams
With 22 total roster spots remaining, it might seem obvious at first glance that the majority of riders listed above will be picked up in the coming weeks to race in 2023.
However, one major takeaway from this season’s free agent class is that while the top of the list is extremely talent-packed, after the top four, the quality drops off incredibly fast (considering this is the fact even after the UCI cut the maximum team size by a rider compared to last season and B&B Hotels went under shows how relatively rare riders who can actually generate results in top-level WorldTour races are).
Top 30 Currently Unsigned Riders
When glancing at the list of currently unsigned riders for 2023, there are a handful of notable names, but, at least in terms of 2022 results, there aren’t an overwhelming number of desirable riders on here for teams searching for instant 2023 results. In fact, after Cavendish in 4th place, Pierre Barbier, who rode anonymously for B&B Hotels, is the next highest-producing rider (in terms of 2022) currently on the market.
Top 5 Unsigned Riders Currently Available Based on 2022 UCI Point Totals
1) Miguel Ángel López (28): 898pts
2) Nairo Quintana (32): 880pts
3) Domenico Pozzovivo (40): 714pts
4) Mark Cavendish (37): 705pts
5) Pierre Barbier (25)-364pts
*Alejandro Valverde (42): 1,996pts
This mixture of threadbare rider inventory and a large number of remaining roster spots, particularly on teams who will most likely be in the promotion/relegation battle, should tell us that, outside the top four available riders, teams will likely look to ad untested youth prospects, like Trinity Racing’s Luke Lamperti and Cameron Mason, as the season goes on rather than revisit unsigned veterans.
This ‘youth over experience’ playbook will likely become more and more common as teams see young prospects like Tadej Pogačar, Remco Evenepoel, and Juan Ayuso dominate WorldTour races straight from the youth circuit.
Five Key Takeaways:
1) It is shocking Miguel Ángel López is still without a team for 2023
The Colombian, who is still technically in the prime of his career and has two grand tour podium finishes on his resume, should be the biggest free agent available by a large margin and have multiple teams bidding to get his signature on paper before the start of the season.
But, instead, he currently finds himself without any offers from major teams and is slated to step back to racing domestically in Colombian due to incredibly damaging doping associations.
This development, while encouraging, is still shocking, especially considering riders facing doping allegations haven’t had particular trouble finding teams willing to get them contracts in the recent past.
This highlights both the severity of the allegations López is facing and just how quickly the culture around doping allegations has changed in the sport (I wouldn’t be shocked if this culture change is due to an unofficial decree from the UCI concerning the status of a team’s WorldTour license if they are found to be complicit in their riders’ use of doping).
Having said that, I find it difficult to believe López will remain unsigned by a major team from the top two divisions before this season’s Tour de France. There are simply too many teams chasing too few major results for someone to eventually cave and take a risk on such a talented rider.
2) Nairo Quintana will also offer struggling teams a tempting mid-season bailout option
Just like López, Quintana, who is still fairly young at 32 years old and coming off a season that was good enough to net 6th place overall at the Tour de France and earn his former Arkéa team promotion to the top-flight, is shockingly still without a 2023 team as we head into the new season.
But, also just like his countryman López, Quintana’s positive test for Tramadol at the 2022 Tour de France (the presence of a painkiller that is banned in-race but not during training/home time indicates a far more serious doping offense) has appeared to significantly cool the market and spooked any teams who would consider signing him.
Outside of the doping questions, Quintana offers potential teams less and less relative to his GC peers with every passing season due to his lack of time trialing, inability to consistently outclimb the sport’s major GC stars, and apparent lack of desire to chase overall titles at shoulder grand tours (Giro & Vuelta) in lieu of targeting the Tour de France.
But, even considering all of this, struggling teams could view Quintana as an easy way to grab a grand tour stage win.
3) Mark Cavendish was showing signs of decline in 2022 but brings outsized positive value to the deeply troubled Astana team
The 37-year-old sprinter has been the undisputed catch of this off-season and, assuming the rumors are true, appears all but set to ride for Astana in 2023.
However, when we look at the actual production numbers relative to the other free agents, Cavendish had a surprisingly modest 2022. This could be an aberration, but, at his age (will be 38 years old at the 2023 Tour), we would be foolish to ignore even the slightest sign of decline.
Even with a potential performance drop-off in 2023, this marriage will be a win for both the team, who needs all the wins/UCI points it can get and doesn’t have many others at this point, and Cavendish, who will get a nice seven-figure contract and a sure-fire start at the 2023 Tour de France, which, in turn, will give him an opportunity to break Eddy Merckx’s all-time stage win record.
4) Domenico Pozzovivo could be the short-term answer to a struggling team’s problems
The 40-year-old Italian wasn’t retained by his Intermarché team following the 2022 season, which is understandable considering the team’s shifting focus to its emerging young star in Biniam Girmay and Pozzovivo’s limited skillset.
But, even at his age, he racked up impressive results during the 2022 season (top 10 overall at the Giro d’Italia) and could present cheap results (and points) for struggling teams with roster spots remaining (i.e. Bahrain).
Assuming he hasn’t quietly retired, I’m surprised Pozzovivo hasn’t been picked up yet and wouldn’t rule out a late signing, just like his last-second move to Intermarché in February of 2022.
5) It isn’t inconceivable that we see Alejandro Valverde return to racing in 2023
While the 42-year-old Spanish legend officially retired to much fanfare at the end of 2022, as we can see above, he had a far better season than any of the available free agents and appears to be staying in better shape than the majority of the Movistar roster, despite moving into a managerial role with the team over the off-season.
When we consider this fitness, the relative weakness of the Movistar roster, and the team’s failure to replace Valverde, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility to think that team boss Eusebio Unzué would ask Valverde to transition from the team car to a role within the racing team mid-season.
Technically, the team wouldn’t be allowed to do this due to already having 30 riders, but if the situation became desperate enough, they would likely consider sending a lesser rider home for the season with a nice check to free up space for Valverde.