The Swiss Job: Who Stole Marc Hirschi & Why Did He Leave?
Marc Hirschi emerged as a superstar and it appears his own team wasn't willing to pay his market value
In the latest episode of the Beyond the Peloton podcast, I talk with Keegan Swirbul about his surreal summer, which saw him go from unemployment and living in an RV to racing professionally in Europe in the span of a week.
Just as I was putting the finishing touches on the 2021 WorldTour Team BTP NET Ratings and analysis for premium subscribers, Marc Hirschi threw a massive wrench in these plans by announcing he would be leaving the team formerly known as Sunweb (now Team DSM) just a few days into the 2021 season, despite being under contract with the squad through the year.
This is really shocking news, as it is highly unusual for a star rider to simply leave a team a few weeks into the season and means that one of the most exciting young riders in the sport is now at-large and currently, without a team to race on for the 2021 season. However, I believe that Hirschi has already signed with UAE-Team Emirates for 2021 but the announcement of the deal is imminent.
This leaves the obvious questions of why this happened and where Hirschi is headed for the remainder of the year. I touched on this on Monday, but I’ve talked to a few rider agents in the past 48 hours and the consensus seems to be that Hirschi left specifically because of money, or more specifically, lack thereof when his DSM team was unwilling to renegotiate his contract to a significantly higher pay grade.
The Swiss sports website Blick reported yesterday that as recently as 2019, Hirschi was being paid the neo-pro minimum of $36,000. I assume that there was some sort of built-in pay bump for his second year, which would have been this past season (Marc clearly needs a new agent since a U23 World Champion in 2018 should never have signed a minimum-level contract), but even including this pay bump, it is hard to imagine he was making much more than $100,000 in 2020. Getting the production they did out of the 22-year-old Swiss rider, which included a Tour de France stage win, second place on Stage 2, third place on Stage 9, winning at Fleche-Wallone, near-miss at the Monument Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and podium at the World Championships, was an absurd value arbitrage that worked out incredibly well for the team.
This constant hunt for value is team manager Iwan Spekenbrink’s greatest strength, but the obsession is also the team’s biggest weakness. Instead of tearing up the low-value contract a year early and retaining Hirschi on a long-term deal with a higher salary (as Trek-Segafredo did with Mads Pedersen after his World Championships victory in 2019), it appears like they played hard-ball and demanded that he race the 2021 season at an extremely depressed salary. They were certainly within their legal right to do this but this is playing checkers, not chess.
My guess is that when they refused to bend over backward and accommodate whatever deal Hirschi was happy with, the hardball tactics entrenched Hirschi, who promptly informed them that another team had approached him (likely UAE Team Emirates) with an offer of paying him over ten times his current pay effective immediately and that he had no intention of racing in 2021 for the amount his contract was going to pay him. This left DSM with the choice of dealing with an unhappy Hirschi, possibly to the point of him refusing to race, or simply letting him out of his contract and getting out of paying his salary for the 2021 season, which would have been extremely unideal if he refused to race.
To illustrate just how underpaid Hirschi was, let’s take a look at the Top 20 highest paid cyclists from the 2020 season, paying special attention to Fabio Aru, who left UAE at the end of the year, leaving the team with a $3.2 million USD burning a hole in their pocket. The aforementioned Blick piece suggests Hirschi is set to be paid $1.23 million (€1 million) a year from UAE, but even this seems like an underpay to me considering the amounts listed below:
1. Peter Sagan – 5 million euros
2. Chris Froome – 4.5 million euros
3. Geraint Thomas – 3.5 million euros
4. Egan Bernal – 2.7 million euros
5. Fabio Aru – 2.6 million euros
6. Michal Kwiatkowski – 2.5 million euros
7. Julian Alaphilippe – 2.3 million euros
8. Alejandro Valverde – 2.2 million euros
9. Vincenzo Nibali – 2.1 million euros
10. Richard Carapaz – 2.1 million euros
11. Thibaut Pinot – 2 million euros
12. Primoz Roglic – 2 million euros
13. Nairo Quintana – 1.9 million euros
14. Elia Viviani – 1.9 million euros
15. Fernando Gaviria – 1.8 million euros
16. Tom Dumoulin – 1.8 million euros
17. Romain Bardet – 1.7 million euros
18. Greg Van Avermaet – 1.6 million euros
19. Miguel Angel Lopez – 1.5 million euros
20. Simon Yates – 1.5 million euros
The most obvious thing that should stick out on this list is the absence of the current Tour de France Champion, Tadej Pogacar. I have to assume that UAE has repurposed some of the Aru funds to increase his compensation to a level more in-line with his accomplishments.
You can make a compelling argument that only three riders on this list had a season on-par or better than Hirschi (Alaphilippe, Carapaz, Roglic), which helps explain the current situation.
This extremely wide spread between Hirschi’s wage and performance opened up the door for a team willing to splash some cash, like UAE, to swoop in. They likely approached Hirschi with an offer to increase his salary from around $100,000-ish per year, to something more in-line with his talents, like $2,000,000 per year, and the offer was too great to decline and continue racing under his current deal with DSM. The delta between these figures is a life-changing amount of money and UAE’s fluid and unstructured style would be a great fit for him and while the team is the home of my favorite for the 2021 Tour de France, Tadej Pogacar, they don’t use a controlling, defensive style that would require Hirschi to set on the front and set pace for three weeks. In return, UAE would get much-needed horsepower to stay with Pogacar when racing gets serious and avoid mishaps like we saw in the crosswinds on Stage 7.
A Completely Avoidable Situation
It is hard to underestimate how avoidable this situation was and how big of a loss this is for Team DSM. The team had gone all-in by leaving their superstar Michael Matthews at home during the Tour de France but their incredibly fluid team tactics and sparkling individual performance of Hirschi saw this bold move pay off via three stage wins (12, 14 & 19). But just a few months later they have lost their lifeboat and seem stranded in the middle of the ocean. Most troubling, the future star joins a long list of star riders who have forced their way out of the team formerly known as Sunweb.
Tom Dumoulin, Michael Matthews, Marcel Kittell, John Degenkolb, Warren Barguil, Leonard Kamna, Sam Oomen, Wilco Kelderman, and Mike Teunissen all left the team formerly known as Sunweb, a good portion even mid-contract, after growing dissatisfied with the team. One breakup like this is bad luck, but this is clearly a growing trend that will continue to plague the team, and at some point, the buck needs to stop with Team Manager Iwan Spekenbrink.
I touched on this in my premium newsletter on Monday, but when Spekenbrink’s tactics are meshing, his team’s are a thing of beauty. However, the flat-hierarchy and “team above all else” mentality clearly grates on star riders and if he wants to ever retain star riders, he will have to make adjustments to accommodate them. Additionally, with deep-pocketed Dutch conglomerate DSM on board, compensation issues should be a thing of the past.
To be fair, we should entertain the fact that perhaps DSM did offer to match Hirschi’s offer from UAE and the Swiss rider simply saw a better opportunity at another team. But even in this scenario, DSM never should have been this reactive and let the situation escalate to this point. They should have offered Hirschi a new contract in the middle of the Tour de France as soon as he displayed his talent to lock him up long-term at his true market value. This would have kept other teams from swooping in like vultures when they found out Hirschi was being wildly underpaid.
A Crushing Blow
According to my BTP NET Ratings, the Hirschi exodus means DSM has now suffered the greatest exodus of talent during the offseason. If we assume Hirschi goes to UAE, it will see the team have the second-best offseason, behind only Ineos.
Team success in pro cycling is almost entirely based on finding a handful of riders who are extraordinary performers and filling the rest of the roster in with strong and dutiful domestiques, which means, whether you like it or not, taking care of their top performers should be the first thing a team manager thinks about when they wake up in the morning. This entire situation could be easily summed up with the simple explanation that UAE management thought about Hirschi more and rated his talents higher than his own team management did.
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