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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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!