‘Things aren’t as glamorous as people think’ - What is it like to be a rider agent in the WorldTour?

Jamie Barlow runs the management agency 258 Protégé. With riders like Ethan and Leo Hayter, Josh Tarling and Niamh Fisher-Black in his books, how does he spot talent? Negotiate contracts? Deal with teams folding? He tells Rouleur…

Shady deals, secret handshakes, seven digit contracts, ruthless negotiation. These are a few of the preconceptions some have about rider agents in the cycling world. Their job isn’t one that gets talked about much, it’s a role that deals with muddied waters, awkward conversations and brutal disappointments. While we can all allow ourselves to become engrossed in the magic and romance of the Tour de France or the beautiful landscapes of the Giro d’Italia, cycling, like most things, has to run on money. And rider agents sit at the very centre of this crucial sector of the spot. 

Some agents prefer to keep the shadows and mystery surrounding what they do, often due to confidentiality clauses or legal reasons, and it means many of us remain in the dark about how it all works. Why would Mark Cavendish’s contract take so long to sign? How can an athlete be signed to a management company at just 17 years old? What do you do when a team like B&B Hotels folds and riders have already signed a contract for the next season?

Jamie Barlow has worked in cycling management and agency for close to a decade, and he’s dealt with some of the biggest up and coming talents in the sport, including the likes of Tom Pidcock, Ben Tulett and Jake Stewart. In August 2021, Barlow made the decision to start his own cycling agency, 258 Protégé – in partnership with English professional boxer Anthony Joshua – and he wanted to do things differently. He’s since signed some of the most exciting talent in the WorldTour, including brothers Ethan and Leo Hayter, junior world champion Joshua Tarling and U23 women’s world champion Niamh Fisher-Black.

Speaking exclusively to Rouleur, Barlow explained the ins and outs of running a cycling management company. From contract negotiations to being a mentor figure to his riders and everything in between, this is what it’s like to help facilitate some of the biggest deals in professional cycling.

How does it really work?

“It's far less glamorous than people think, people have misconceptions and maybe they think of football and massive numbers being turned around. It's quite different driving over at 6am on a Eurotunnel to Belgium in March or April, eating at petrol stations and standing around in the cold,” Barlow says with a smile. He explains that he works in cycling out of pure love for the sport – his grandfather was a professional rider and it’s always been a big part of his life.

Still, Barlow’s agency is no charity, and like every agent in the industry, he does make money from what he does. “It operates on a percentage of the rider's salary. There should never be any upfront payments or payments to join an agency, that certainly should never happen,” he explains. “Typically, an agent will sign a rider on the premise that they will earn a commission from their salary. Some agencies don't commission until a rider earns x amount, though.”

Barlow explains that for athletes who are part of 258 Protégé, he will never take a commission off them until they sign their WorldTour contract. “From my side, that's a big investment of time, because if I'm signing 17 or 18 year olds, it could be three, four or five years before they go to the WorldTour. There's no return on that investment until they progress and not all riders do progress. That’s how the model works.”

Ethan Hayter who rides for Ineos Grenadiers is managed by Jamie Barlow (Image: Getty)

There’s more to the job than salaries too, Barlow says that much of his time is taken up by organising corporate or sponsorship events for his riders to help them make a name for themselves and raise awareness of their public image. “I'm quite active on the commercial side. I do push the riders from a young age to try and help them build their profile and their brand image. They hate me for it at the time,” he jokes, referencing how nervous many of his athletes get ahead of speaking at public functions.

These events aren’t especially lucrative financially, but they serve as ideal networking opportunities for both Barlow and his riders. He tells me that this is part of the reason he chose to partner with boxer Anthony Joshua when setting up 258 Protégé. “He’s transcended his sport and got some incredible commercial partners and commercial deals. It's great to be in those conversations and we're starting to see it already where some of our riders benefit from those partnerships.”

When it comes to actually putting pen to paper, it’s often a long process while Barlow is negotiating a rider’s contract with the team. He explains that typically, he speaks to team owners or principles when making these decisions. “In the past in Ineos, that would have been [Dave] Brailsford and it's now Rod Ellingworth. It’s Mauro Gianetti from UAE Team Emirates and so on.”

Barlow also explains that often older, more experienced riders in teams reach out to him in order to find contracts for young talent which they have spotted. He comments that “Richie Porte has probably saved about 25 careers doing just that, just being proactive and saying: can you help this rider?” When dealing with younger athletes especially, a big part of Barlow’s role is agreeing on a long term plan with a team, and he explains that often a team’s development pathway and environment for a young rider is more important than the salary that they offer. 

When it comes to his riders who have not yet secured a WorldTour contract, Barlow aims to get them on team training camps throughout the winter so they can build relationships and get a taste of being in a WorldTour setup. “For juniors and first year U23s, I’ll often hear from sports directors who will reach out to me saying, can we get this kid on a camp? WorldTour camps where they go and spend a week or 10 days just to see how a WorldTour team runs and operates and also for the WorldTour team to see if that rider could potentially be a good fit.”

While Barlow, understandably, will always push for the best contract for his athletes, he admits that signing the first WorldTour contract is often the easiest one, but things get trickier as a rider gets older. “The first one is given because of talent or promise but then you have to actually do something within that first contract to get the team to renew your contract again, or to go to another team or to get a pay rise,” Barlow says. “I think that's going to be accelerated now because of these young riders coming through. I think pro careers ultimately are going to be shorter.”

It’s only getting younger

The trend of young riders dominating WorldTour races is one of cycling’s most talked about recent phenomenons. Think Tadej Pogačar winning the Tour at 21, or Remco Evenepoel being a world champion at 22, there has been a significant shift in the age of athletes at the top of the sport. With this, riders are being offered WorldTour contracts at an even younger age than ever before.

“I think that's the scary part, how much it's changed,” Barlow says. “Four or five years ago, you would look, at the very youngest, second year or first year under-23. Now the top-20 juniors probably already have agents, so it's just getting younger and younger. There's lots of good agents out there that will sign young talent and transition them into good teams but now you're looking at underage results and first year juniors as opposed to looking at U23 results.”

Barlow alongside Leo Hayter (Image: 258 Protégé)

Barlow notes that there is a danger to riders skipping the under-23 ranks and heading straight to the WorldTour, he talks about the big step up that 18-year-old junior world champion Josh Tarling is going to have to make when he moves to the Ineos Grenadiers in 2023, gaining residency in Andorra and learning to live alone for the first time.

“You’ve got some exceptional juniors who have gone directly to the WorldTour last year and this year, but that’s not going to work for everyone,” Barlow says. “I think the UCI will look at a mandatory year spent at under-23 level just to protect the riders.”

“I would support that move from the UCI because it's a safeguard for rider development. When I sign a rider at 17, or 18, or 19, the plan is to work with them for 15 seasons. It's a long term investment.”

This trend of riders signing at a younger age is also making it harder for some of the more experienced professionals to find contracts. Barlow cites Mark Cavendish as an example: “They're recruiting younger and younger. They want the best juniors, whereas Mark has maybe a year left? I'm sure he still will get a team but he probably has added complications: he will want a particular bike brand or he has got his own endorsements. You’ll probably have to sign lead out riders, staff and mechanics, it’s not just Mark. A lot of teams don't have that budget.”

The women’s peloton

258 Protégé has a mix of both male and female riders on its books, including under-23 world champion Niamh Fisher-Black and up and coming talents like Sarah Gigante and Ally Wollaston on the women’s side. As women’s cycling has developed, Barlow notes he’s seen a shift in the professionalism of contract negotiations.

“I definitely felt there was a barrier to a lot of the women's teams in dealing with agents. Some of the women were made to feel like they should accept the first offer they were given and not challenge or question it, just be grateful,” he explains.

“I think that has changed massively. There's some good teams, like Trek and SD Worx, that have brought the sport on a lot.”

Barlow says that the Cyclists’ Alliance, a rider union for female athletes, has been crucial to ensuring that female cyclists are supported when it comes to negotiating their contracts. “It’s somewhere women can go and ask questions. They will actually reach out to me quite a bit as well to try and speak to riders or help riders find teams or solutions.”

“If you look at the Women's WorldTour teams, a number of teams this year have outperformed men's teams. It's no longer a tick the box exercise to have a women's team. The sponsors are demanding women's teams, it's moved on from just being good PR.”

Under-23 World Champion Niamh Fisher-Black (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)

An emotional investment

Barlow tells me that he develops an almost familial bond with his athletes, listing off a number of anecdotes about when he’s spent time with their parents or helped riders through difficult periods. He mentions hiring a house in Wollongong for Ethan Hayter and Josh Tarling’s families to share during the World Championships and flying out to the U23 Giro d’Italia with Leo Hayter’s parents on the final stage.

“I think I'm probably too emotionally invested because I work with such a small number of riders,” Barlow says. “I've had a couple of riders going through some tough issues mentally and physically with sickness and depression and so on. In that case, you're speaking with the parents as much as you are with the rider. It's like being a family member and I want to keep that. I think that's what makes the agency special, or at least it does from my side. Ultimately, you do lose that if you go to managing bigger numbers of riders, and I want to keep that ethos.”

With the unpredictability of cycling and how fragile the business model is, there’s also a tough side to being a rider agent, dealing with the lows as well as the highs. “At the end of the day, you want to help riders and it's horrible when it's their dream to turn pro and maybe don't have enough results to get there.”

I mention the current situation with the B&B Hotels team folding, despite having already reportedly signed a number of contracts with big name riders. “It’s a horrible situation,” says Barlow. “I’ve heard from a number of riders in that team who are desperate to find something else, but it’s mid-December, so it’s not easy. As an agent, you have to scramble and you start calling team managers to see what spots that have left. There’s so many times where the sport takes one step forward, and two backwards.”

Smaller is better

With this in mind, Barlow is keen to stress the importance he places on keeping 258 Protégé small with a family-like environment. He explains that bigger agencies manage up to 80 riders at once, saying that “at some point, you’ve forgotten what each rider looks like.” Being able to give individual and bespoke treatment to each rider is a key part of what Barlow believes sets 258 Protégé apart.

“When the riders are struggling with ill health, or injury or lack of form or whatever it is, then they need some good people around them that can help them through. For me it's one of the biggest beauties of working with fewer riders. If you work with 60, 70 or 80 athletes then they can just become turnover. It's not a model that will ever work for me.”

Barlow says he regularly will fly to Girona and Andorra throughout the year to visit his riders. “I actually try and visit their homes where they're based quite a lot. It’s important to catch up with riders and spend time with them away from racing because the teams pack up and leave and it’s one big moving circus. If you can actually meet them in between races, then I think it's a lot better for building relationships.”

Above all, the key idea behind Barlow’s agency and management style is far away from the preconceived notions that some may have about the role of rider agents in the professional peloton. He explains that he runs it out of affection for the sport with an emphasis on long-term development and genuine care for rider well-being. 

“If it was all for the financial benefits, I’d manage Premiership footballers,” Barlow says. “Cycling is the sport we love, and that we’re passionate about. I share the success with the riders.”