Friday, November 6, 2009

Bradley Wiggins - Is Garmin Planning a Tea Party of its Own?

So Sky delayed the announcement of it’s final roster today, news that has sent everyone into yet another tizzy of speculation over the future of Bradley Wiggins. Sky’s been a rumored destination for Wiggins since his eye-opening 4th place in this year’s Tour. The problem? He has a year remaining on the contract he signed with Garmin before the 2009 season.

Garmin’s been relatively silent on the matter with both Jonathan Vaughters and Matt White saying little more than “he has one more year on his contract”. After following the situation for quite some time, I have to say that if I were Jonathan Vaughters, I’d let Wiggins go. Here’s why:

1. Money - Releasing Wiggins from his contract will certainly involve some form of a buyout—either by Wiggins, Sky, or some combination of the two. Given the fact that Sky reportedly offered Vincenzo Nibali—a rider who finished the Tour 3 places behind Wiggins—1 million pounds, gives Vaughters an idea of Wiggins' value to the British squad. The math is simple: take the difference between Wiggo’s 4th and Nibali’s 7th in this year’s Tour, add several World and Olympic titles, then multiply by the fact that Wiggins is British. Factor in the perceived exposure Garmin would have received with Wiggins riding for them in next year’s race, and you have a figure that would make the transfer worthwhile—for Garmin, at least.

Does Vaughters have the guts to make the move? I say yes. At first, he seemed to be a bit too loyal as a General Manager when he started, choosing to offer semi-lucrative long-term contracts to former teammates and riders he groomed while working his up through the ranks of the sport. However, Vaughters has shown himself lately to be quite a shrewd businessman, making decisions he might not have made previously. Not renewing the contracts of popular riders like Mike Friedman and possibly Danny Pate was a start; jettisoning long-time wheel sponsor Zipp for Mavic was a stronger indicator of Vaughters’ willingness to do what in the best business interests of his team.

Garmin's reminders in the press of Wiggins’ contractual status serve only to assure us all—and especially the management at Sky—that this is not about Wiggins; it's about his contract, setting the stage for the announcement of what could prove the largest buy-out in the sport’s history.

2. Alberto Contador - Did you find it ironic that Alberto Contador’s trying to negotiate a clause in his “contract” with Astana that frees him from the team should anyone test positive? (No word yet if he’s including himself.) It seems as if Contador desires to ride for a clean team—and he’s making it known publicly. Last week I wondered if one of the reasons Contador has not signed with Garmin is his suspicious past, offering Prentice Steffen as one possible bug in Vaughters' ear warning him of the risks of employing someone like Contador. Could it be that Contador’s using his negotiations with Astana to show Garmin that he’s worthy of a contract with one of the cleanest team in the sport? Absolutely! In the end, his apparent signability, combined with what could be an astronomical influx of money from a Wiggins buy-out, makes it even more plausible that Contador will be wearing orange and blue in the 2010 Tour—and Wiggins won’t.

3. Wiggins’ Attitude - Now things get tricky. It’s never a good idea for a manager—in any sport—to set the precedent that squeaky wheels get the grease. Sending a message to your athletes that all they need to do is whine to get their wishes creates chaos, undermining management’s ability to manage. That said, the fact that Wiggins has made little attempt to hide his desire to leave Garmin for Sky has to factor in Vaughters' plans. Wiggins recently compared winning the Tour to winning the Champions League, saying, “You need to be at Manchester United, but I'm playing at Wigan at the moment.” For American fans, this is the equivalent of saying that to win the World Series you need to be with the New York Yankees instead of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The statement is a clear slam of what Wiggins considers to be Garmin’s ability to deliver him to the top step in Paris.

Why would Vaughters want someone with a potentially cancerous attitude in his team bus? The short answer: he probably doesn’t, which is why most of his public remarks focus on Wiggins’ contractual status as opposed to his value to the team. If Vaughters wanted Wiggins to stay for the good of the team, he’d say so.

And can you blame him? A cycling team is a much more fragile team-environment than a football or baseball team. With only a handful of riders participating in any given race, combined with the pressure-cooker environment of a 3-week Grand Tour, it’s an understatement to say that the possible spread of one rider’s bad attitude is worrisome.

Right now, Vaughters is playing it smart, choosing to treat this as a business decision and not a personal one. Anything else would compromise his standing with his riders and staff.

4. Wiggins’ Ability - I’m sorry to say it, but I just don’t think Wiggins will prove able to live up to the hype. His value to Sky lies more in his nationality than his talent. Do you think they would be making such a push for him had he finished 37th in the Tour? I think not. Yes, he’s won various World and Olympic titles and proven himself to be more than capable against the clock, but victory in the Tour? Seriously?

Wiggins’ Tour result was one of those once-in-a-lifetime rides we see every few years. I’m not saying he can’t finish inside the top-10 again, but I’ll bet that 4th will be the highest result we ever see from him. Remember, by most accounts, this year’s Tour was not incredibly difficult; it favored a consistent rider like Wiggins. I wager that if this year’s Tour would have included 1-2 more summit finishes, this conversation wouldn’t be happening right now—Sky would have made Garmin a fair offer following Wiggo’s 12th place, and his bags would have been packed long ago.

It all comes down to a textbook case of risk vs. reward, where the risk lies with Sky and the reward with Garmin. Vaughters seems to be playing the role of shrewd GM, trying to “sell high” at the peak of Wiggins’ value. Can you imagine the look on Sky’s collective faces should they pay handsomely for Wiggins only to have him finish 11th in a 2010 Tour won by Contador—for Garmin—who was signed with the money the team received for Wiggins? Maybe the exposure Wiggins would receive with home viewing audience makes it worth the risk for Sky. But I'd rather win with a foreign rider than finish lower with someone from home.

In the end, look for a deal to be reached sometime soon, freeing Wiggins to leave Garmin for Sky. Maybe Vaughters and Sky’s management can find somewhere between Boulder and London to seal the deal, somewhere like…Boston?

Here's hoping the Sky doesn't indeed prove to be the limit for Wiggins.

Your thoughts? Share them below.


  1. Whit,

    Great analysis!

    Sky has signed so many non-British riders in order to get the venture started successfully and at the highest level, that they are in "danger" of becoming an International Super Team rather than the British Team they want to be. Wiggins helps fill the void, as they develop or identify local or other acceptable Anglo talent.

    If they can secure Wiggins, even at relatively high cost, he'll add value in several facets, not only on the bike, but also in helping improve their following on home soil, even if he never improves on his TdF placing (which I agree is unlikely to happen).

  2. I agree, T-R. There is certainly value for Sky in bringing a rider like Wiggo into the fold. I'm sure Vaughters is aware of this as he sets a price for the buy-out.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. I think Vaughters knows he needs to make a credible challenge at the Tour next year, and he's going to do that either with Wiggins or Contador. He can't let Wiggins go without a rider for the podium. Period.

    As for Contador's anti-doping stance, weird to me that he would talk so openly of going to Caisse d'Epargne to ride with Valverde. Cognitive dissonance anyone?

  4. Yes, Da Robot, it's some confusing logic for sure. Frankly, I don't think he gives a damn about doping; he just doesn't want to ride for Astana.

    I'm sure you would agree.

    As for Garmin, I'd almost rather go with VDV--he seems less volatile, although less likely to score a high place on GC.

    Thanks for the comments.

  5. Interesting reading and a good article, though as a fan of wiggins (so may be somewhat bias) I believe that he can continue to improve - this year was one of his first years concentrating fully on road and with his events scraped on the track, one of the most talented riders out there can now fully concentrate all his efforts on the road next year and hopefully continue to improve on his performances, as a brit i m keen for him to join sky! - but he's done so well with garmin i wondered with he would have a better chance on le tour staying with them... good reading cheers Tim

  6. I think you're right on, Wiggins did his once-in-a-lifetime TdF ride this year. Not likely to happen again. Unfortunately, VDV had his two years ago, I fear. And the risk of signing Contador only to see a positive doping test complicates matters.

    Outstanding analysis. Articles like this are why this is one of the can't miss cycling sites.

  7. Wiggins is overrated. There is no way he'lll finish above LA, AC or any of the Schlecks next year. Vaughters should let him off and look for a real podium contender.

  8. I couldn’t agree more. Following the story I haven’t been able to decide if people really believed what they were saying, or just not saying what you’ve been thinking.
    A historical look at TdF 4th places looks like a who’s who of stage racing talent that never hit the big one; Leblanc (94), Dufaux (96 + 99), Hamilton and Rinero. Sure, Leblanc got the rainbow jersey, but with hindsight being 20/20, are any of these riders worth million euro contracts? No.
    The one fourth that struck me as similar to Wiggo is Moreau’s in 2000. The Great French Hope, much as Bradely is slated to be the British Hope was a good time trialist (prologue winner), could hang with the leaders - if not ride away from them - in the mountains and survive three weeks. Every year he made the list as a possible top 10, but never hit the podium. Moreau got a 7th in 2006 and had a few great Dauphine’s, but that was it.
    If I were a Manager, I’d be looking for a young rider who landed in the 10th-20th range and build on that instead.

  9. Great stuff, Eddy. I agree that a 4th place to me might be the peak for a mediocre rider--especially one getting up in age. Terrific insights.

    Thanks for reading!


Thanks for your comment! We'll take a look and add it to the site shortly.