Contract ballet...

Ali Todd is pondering recent breaches of contract in the cycling world, not least Aaron Gwin’s monumental jump from Trek to Specialized – a move that has the downhill world and some of Gwin’s sponsors up in arms. 

The reason for Aaron Gwin’s jump from Trek to Specialized has been much speculated, but Ali Todd’s wondering how this will affect our sport in the long run.
Photo ©Cameron Baird/Red Bull Content Pool

Ali’s wondering what brought this move about, why the golden-boy of mountain biking should breach his recently signed ‘letter of intent’ and what this means for our sport. In other sports things like this happen all the time, right? So do we need to worry or even take any notice at all? Perhaps we really should care – our sport is supposed to be friendly, laid-back and not tarred by scandal, surely?

Ali has gathered some of his thoughts together and would like to hear your opinions below.

Contract ballet

Words: Ali Todd

I don’t know how many of you are up to date with the chaos and carnage in the world of downhill racing at the moment, but it’s quite amusing.

Here’s the story in condensed form: Aaron Gwin, the fastest man on the downhill scene at the moment, has been riding for Trek World Racing for the last three years. His contract with them was up in the summer, but Trek wanted him back, and sent him a “letter of intent”, which he signed and returned. However, two days ago, word leaked out that he had transferred to Specialized in an impromptu move. Trek knew absolutely nothing about this, it seemed – the day before the leak we got wind of it and sent Martin Whitely (23 Degrees; the team manager) an email, to which he replied “Aaron Gwin signed a 3 year commitment with us, and we will be filing his name along with other team members with the UCI next week as part of our team registration process.”

So what’s going on? Well, Martin Whitely has hit the roof and is apparently considering legal action against Gwin, as he says a Letter of Intent is legally binding. Here in the UK it’s not (in itself), but things are different in the US, where it’s very unclear. Gwin, well known as an All-American dream boy (and a devout Christian), is facing a lot of criticism for this, but it seems the whole story isn’t out yet.

This kind of deal is practically unheard of in mountain biking, which is why the story is so huge. We’re blessed with having a very small, not excessively over-developed sport, where it’s not dog-eat-dog, and gentleman’s agreements are the substance of life. It’s young and cosy, and I like it that way.

If this were any other sport, however, would anyone have taken the blindest bit of notice of one nearly-contract being escaped? Are we going to see our sport turn into another of these super-sports? Is the money pumped in by huge companies like Trek, Specialized, Red Bull etc. going to change things?

Let’s have a quick look to some other sports to help us think about this:

Formula 1

F1 is probably one of the biggest sports in terms of contracts and money, and there’s always a bit of “contract ballet” as I like to call it (flitting gracefully between people, occasionally being forcibly thrown). Sebastian Vettel, for instance, is rumoured to move from Red Bull to Ferrari before his contract is up in 2014, but Red Bull is insisting there are no get out clauses he can use. Minor drama.

Football

In football, it’s constant: players swapping between teams for the money is seen as no more mercenary than someone asking for a refund for a dysfunctional TV. Money is big, but no one’s really bothered. Money (and money alone) decides where players go. It’s just clever business, right? There’s no team loyalty in most players, and it’s accepted happily.

Road

In road cycling, there’s the huge drama over Armstrong being “ready to admit to doping”, and the damage that he could do to the other racers and the companies involved. I know it’s not contract switching, but it’s to do with teams, contracts, and the media coverage – the media was responsible for holding back the information over the mass doping, whereas in the Gwin case, maybe we’ve released it too early, before we knew the whole story.

The managers

The flipside of team members switching: there’s also the drama of the managers being pushed. If we saw managers being fired by the teams because they weren’t performing well enough, it would be a whole different game. This happens in football all the time and is never seen as a big deal. Should team managers be so harshly judged in mountain bikes? Maybe we’re too gentlemanly? It comes down to the mindset in mountain bikes, and (I suppose) not being able to pass the blame on in a never-ending circle of responsibility.

My conclusion

Some of the time these letters of intent are signed by the athlete as they’re looking forward to another season, while the managers have no intention of actually finishing with a contract, but are just covering themselves with a backup option while trying to sign someone else. It works all ways, and anywhere but here it’s taken without the blindest bit of notice.

Our sport isn’t incredibly professional… If you look at all these examples, mountain biking is barely a sport in comparison. It’s a pastime. Scandal isn’t well known in mountain bikes like it is in road, though it may be on its way.

Working at the other end of this, the journalism in our sport isn’t searching for scandal, paying people off and dirtying people’s names. The worst we could be accused of is printing without presenting/knowing the whole story, because the internet’s instant nature demands the information before you’ve even seen it.

Bikes, however, are simultaneously huge, with one in five households now having mountain bikes, and quiet, with a very part-time attitude to racing World Cups and signing contracts. I love it like that.

Is it just me?

Well, is it? This makes sense in my mind, but I suppose there are benefits of the sport growing. Is it inevitable? I don’t know. Help me figure this out please!

  1. serge the seal of death

    Its a buisness, and its growing, letters of intent may be binding but all that means is you have to pay if you break it, and breaking a letter of intent and a contract is very different. I wonder what happens if a team offers a letter of intent, and then does not produce a contract.
    Top riders need personal managers, who should be out to not only get riders to the best teams, but also the teams who offer the best terms, riders tend to not have long time frames to earm, Steve Peat being a massive exception but in real terms he is hardly old to loose a carrer.
    until a contract is in place than things are fluid, do we want to see riders switching during seasons etc, no but mostly people are watching the riding then the rider, then the kit. so to an us, not alot of differance really.

    1. AlasdairTodd1

      Teams have been known to sack riders off after letters of intent, but the results aren’t really known. If teams can sue, then surely riders should get something too?

  2. Andreu

    Well, sometimes we do get lost in this ethic conflicts and forget about using common sense. There is no way can say for sure what we would do if we were in Gwin’s shoes, nor TWR management, who issued a statement explain they would legally act against Gwin. But we can have a good idea of what we could do… What would I decide if I was presented with a large offer, better conditions and a whole lot more bang for simply doing what I do best? Would I stay at my current job or explore this new possibility? Hard to say no.

    Letter of intent… come on, you either say yes or no.

    I can understand Trek’s situation in this matter… they terminated the XC program, focused on the Gravity program and had the bike and the face to have a successful season and then plan the deal with Gwin. They got beaten, by a large and often unscrupulous company who has done this in the past: hiring riders in their top form by a whole lot of money. That, unfortunately, is business. Period.

    Regarding the article, which I found really insightful, it points two situations worth mentioning: the ethics in MTB compared to other sports, even within the cycling world (as a football fan, I hate losing my best players to another team, but that is life, why isn’t that possible in cycling?) and the media’s involvement (I’ve been following the Gwingate since the beginning and to be honest… I still don’t know what is happening.

    Are we that bored with double flips, mega whips or winter weather taking time away from riding bikes we need to find a scandal to have something to talk about?

    Ali Todd, thanks for the article, it made me write this comment!

    1. AlasdairTodd1

      My gut feeling plus a few tweets says there’s more to this than we’ve seen so far. I’m not sure calling Specialized unscrupulous is fair – they’re all at the same game, but Specialized and Trek do have a “special relationship”. And not in the good sense.

      Where’s the sense in hiring the rider at the top of their form though? This stumps me. If he carries on winning on the Demo, everybody will just think “ahh well, it’s just Gwin”. No massive PR for the bike. If he doesn’t win, Specialized will get a huge kickback from the media and a drop in sales. Where’s the sense? Enlighten me!

      The media front – I got a hint the day before this broke and went on the hunt, and not even Trek seemed to know! That’s how sudden this is. We’ve been trying to get something over at Dirt, but not much is surfacing. Just hold on and it’ll all come out, I suppose.

      Glad you enjoyed this Andreu! That comment will keep me writing. Nice to hear the positives as well as the negatives!

      1. Andreu

        Well, probably unscrupulous can be an unfair word. Again, it is business and, definitely, Trek and Specialized go a long way. But it did crossed the line of the “gentlemen” agreement the Mtb still holds. Nonetheless, probably the word is a bit too strong, I stand corrected.

        Regarding athletes, well, Sam Hill springs to mind. Anyway, Gwin is on top form, but he still has championships and medals to win in him. I understand your point of view (it is a risk, always), but I also ask you: why did Specialized hired the top DH athlete at the moment? Is it because Sam Hill stopped delivering and they wanted podiums? Do they need a different approach? Yes, public can have that reaction (Gwin won?… yawww), but if you and I can reach that conclusion, can’t the guys at SPZ get it too? It can backfire, but I guess in between, the sales will not drop but rise…

        So, this does get us to the main point of my comment… yes, there is much more to this than we’ve just seen or heard. And is the Mtb media trying to get a similar hype “Lance” story is having on the Road front?

        I’m inclined to say: it is just business. And using a football term, Trek was tackled and lost the ball. Now they are complaining with the ref! Keep on playing!

        Thank you for the reply, Ali, from all the articles I read so far, yours was the most lucid.

      2. AlasdairTodd1

        Specialized definitely had a void from Hill signing with Nukeproof/ CRC, and Gwin will fill that amply. You’re right about the sheep effect of Gwin winning on a Demo (“I can ride just like him if I give Specialized £10,000!”), I just think it’s a big gamble, and they would probably be better signing someone who’s yet to thrive – just as Trek did with Gwin three years ago.
        The story just snowballed, to be honest. Mountain biking journalism isn’t the type to have hacks and undercover agents, as I said above, so we saw it pretty much as you lot did. It’s not intentionally over-hyped, I promise! Whitely’s response seems to have generated much more sympathy for Gwin than it did for him.
        Well I’m trying my hand at the UCI for the Friday Debate tomorrow, so let’s hope it goes the same way!

  3. AlasdairTodd1

    Specialized definitely had a void from Hill signing with Nukeproof/ CRC, and Gwin will fill that amply. You’re right about the sheep effect of Gwin winning on a Demo (“I can ride just like him if I give Specialized £10,000!”), I just think it’s a big gamble, and they would probably be better signing someone who’s yet to thrive – just as Trek did with Gwin three years ago.

    The story just snowballed, to be honest. Mountain biking journalism isn’t the type to have hacks and undercover agents, as I said above, so we saw it pretty much as you lot did. It’s not intentionally over-hyped, I promise! Whitely’s response seems to have generated much more sympathy for Gwin than it did for him.

    Well I’m trying my hand at the UCI for the Friday Debate tomorrow, so let’s hope it goes the same way!

  4. AlasdairTodd1

    Oops, doubled up.

  5. Dick Barton

    He isn’t in this as a pasttime…he is in it as a living…if someone is offering more money, why shouldn’t he move? We don’t have the full story yet so it might not be more money (although that is being suggested)…makes no odds to me…he is a good rider and makes a not bad object to watch on a bike…makes no odds what stickers are on his back or bike…
    Given the other dealings with these big companies and the bike world, this just seems to be part and parcel of the big machine.
    Not really bothered about it…I’m sure it’ll all be sorted in some way or another.

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