Well, if it isn’t another transfer season drama with cycling’s biggest and best team slap bang at the centre. This has really been a memorable winter so far, from the rumoured Soudal - Quick-Step and Jumbo-Visma merger, to the speculation-filled Primož Roglič transfer to Bora-Hansgrohe, to talks of an entirely new racing structure, it has been a feast of sassy Tweets and klaxon emojis. One man has been at the very centre of it all – it’s a wonder how he even finds the time – Jumbo-Visma CEO, Richard Plugge.
To summarise a story that most will have already seen firing around social media – if you haven’t, congratulations for not being sucked into the void – the latest Jumbo drama surrounds the young, Belgian talent, Cian Uijtdebroeks. Over the weekend, Jumbo-Visma posted a statement that claimed the 20-year-old had signed with them until 2027. A few hours later, Bora-Hansgrohe released a statement saying that Uijtdebroeks was still under contract to their team until the end of next season. Uijtdebroeks’ management company, A&J All Sports, then posted a statement on their Instagram page saying, “The agreement between Cian Uijtdebroeks and Bora-Hansgrohe has been terminated on December 1st, 2023”. They also added that the rider was looking forward to joining Jumbo-Visma. It’s all as clear as mud.
This situation has, unsurprisingly, garnered plenty of attention from the cycling world – and not just from those concerned where Uijtdebroeks’ personal future immediately lies. On a much wider level, it brings to light various issues with how cycling’s transfer system works and whether it’s fair to all parties involved. It’s not the first time that Jumbo-Visma’s Plugge has engaged in a battle for a rider already under contract. Wout van Aert, for example, engaged in months of legal disputes back in 2018 in order for him to be released from his team at the time, Veranda's Willems-Crelan, and join Jumbo-Visma a year earlier than officially planned – the matter went to both the UCI and the Belgian courts.Image: Getty/Jean Catuffe
When it comes to Uijtdebroeks’, the AIGCP (Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionnels), which is a representative organisation of men’s professional road cycling teams, has been at the core of the discussions surrounding this tumultuous transfer. Plugge currently serves as the president of the AIGCP – he holds this position in conjunction with his role as the CEO of Jumbo-Visma. This is where the first problem lies.
Can Plugge be responsible for representing all professional cycling teams fairly when he has a vested interest in making Jumbo-Visma the best team in the world? Many think not, with calls for his resignation coming thick and fast following the Uijtdebroeks drama – and not for the first time. Cédric Vasseur, who is the manager of Cofidis, tweeted this weekend: “What is that again for the AIGCP president??? You have to respect the rules and resign immediately!!! Get out.”
It seems that the entire debate surrounding Uijtdebroeks is calling for a third regulatory party, which should be the UCI, the world governing body of cycling. At the moment, however, it is yet to comment on the whole debacle. Of course, there are rules in place surrounding transfer seasons and breaking current contracts – riders need to pursue terminations of their contracts for specific reasons (wages not being paid or the team dropping down a level are among these). That’s how Van Aert got out of his contract years ago – the Belgian courts eventually ruled that his decision to break contract with Veranda’s Willems-Crelan last September was lawful as he had “urgent reasons” to do so given the team’s merger with Roompot.
It’s not yet known on which grounds Uijtdebroeks’s agent decided to pursue the termination of his contract with Bora-Hansgrohe, but the conflict between the two teams is an indication that matters were not resolved before Jumbo tweeted the announcement a few days ago. Should there be rules in place from the UCI to stop matters like this going public before a resolution is reached? Maybe. But maybe not.
Among other sports, public negotiations around athletes transferring to other teams is commonplace – think of last year’s drama in Formula One when Oscar Piastri was falsely announced as a driver for Alpine amid a legal wrangle between Alpine and McLaren. In F1 there’s so many rumours that they call it ‘silly season’. In football, transfer season entertainment gossip is all about ‘deadline day’. It’s certainly not been the norm in cycling’s history, but it does seem like the sport is heading into a similar territory to football transfers, whereby rumours and leaks are expected during the transfer window, and teams buying rider’s out of their contracts is seen as the norm.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
Perhaps the discourse this off-season surrounding Plugge and his exploits can also be seen as an indication of how cycling changing – and arguably improving – as a sport. The stakes are getting higher as team budgets are growing, and characters like Plugge are showing a clear step change from the old-fashioned, small-time attitudes that’s held by those who have been in cycling for a long time. Talented young riders like Uijtdebroeks want to be part of Jumbo-Visma because it is a team with a culture of modern-thinking and a history of success. Plugge disrupting the sport is inevitably going to mean he has some enemies, but are characters like him needed to bring things forward and bring new ideas into the sport? His role as president of the AIGCP is undeniably problematic, but is the villain-status Plugge seems to be achieving is more nuanced than some like to admit?
Regardless of everyone’s personal opinions of Plugge, however, there are rules around cycling transfers for a reason. While Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere’s tweets should always been taken with a pinch of salt, he rightly made the point that the transfer for Uijtdebroeks to Jumbo-Visma can only be authorised by the UCI if all parties agree to it, or if the Belgian rider has an extremely compelling reason to break his contract with Bora-Hansgrohe that will stand up in a court of law. Riders signing long-term contracts with teams comes with risks for both sides (if Uijtdebroeks had faced injury or illness which prevented him from reaching his full potential over the last couple of seasons, Bora-Hansgrohe would still have had to pay his salary, for example).
The outcome of this drama is likely to be resolved in the next couple of days, and it seems like Uijtdebroeks’ relationship with Bora-Hansgrohe is somewhat irreparable. It’s likely that Plugge will get what he desires and that the rider will race for Jumbo in 2024, while Bora will walk away with plenty of buy-out cash in the bank. As for Plugge and the AIGCP, that’s another strand of the story still to be resolved. Regardless of what happens next, this is a situation that has brought to light some important conversations surrounding the sport’s rules and structure when it comes to the transfer window. The last few months, as a whole, have signified that change is on the horizon in cycling.
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix