Big-name Belgian riders such as Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (CCC Team), Stijn Vandenbergh (AG2R La Mondiale) and Julien Vermote (Cofidis) are still on the lookout for teams for the 2021 season, with time running out.
With NTT Pro Cycling looking ever more likely to close at the end of the year, and CCC Team’s WorldTour licence having been bought by Circus-Wanty Gobert – which means that the rider rosters of two teams are being squeezed as far as possible into one – the 2020 season is going to spell the end of a number of professional riders’ careers.
On Wednesday, Het Laatste Nieuws highlighted what was just a handful of Belgian riders who fear that their livelihoods are in jeopardy, with even higher-profile names – such as NTT’s Victor Campenaerts and British sprinter Mark Cavendish (Bahrain McLaren) – also still not yet having signed anywhere for 2021.
CCC Team’s Guillaume Van Keirsbulck – once touted as ‘the next Tom Boonen’ – admitted to having had some sleepless nights of late.
“My goal had always been to continue racing until I was 35 or 36,” the 29-year-old Belgian said. “But the teams are full and are making budget cuts.
“Maybe they’ll wait for market prices to drop,” he said. “If necessary, I’ll wait until January to sign with someone – like Jan Bakelants did last year – because I can’t think about what I’d do if it doesn’t work out.”
Thirty-six-year-old Stijn Vandenbergh has spent the past four seasons with French WorldTour team AG2R La Mondiale, but has been told that his services are no longer required.
“The interest that a few teams had shown in me has died down,” he explained to Het Laatste Nieuws. “Nothing’s moving anymore, and AG2R are full; the team made that clear a few months ago.
“Nowhere seems to have a lot of budget available,” Vandenbergh continued, “so at first I thought, ‘I’ll stop.’ But the corona crisis made me realise how great this job is, and how much I still enjoy cycling.
“Even if I carried on for only half a season: one Classics spring in which I could ride Paris-Roubaix – the race that suits me best – one more time… That would be great,” he said. “I’ll give it another two or three weeks, but if it doesn’t work out, I won’t sit in a corner, crying.”
Cofidis riders Vermote and Claeys still looking
Cofidis rider Julien Vermote agreed that the market appears to have gone quiet. While some riders at NTT and CCC have found places for next season, many have not, which makes it clear that there’s an oversupply of riders, the 31-year-old Belgian said.
“It’s not ideal to end up on the market in a year like this one,” said Vermote, who’s ridden in the service of riders like Cavendish at both QuickStep and Dimension Data [now NTT] during his career. “I’d be sorry to have to stop, as I still enjoy cycling – more than ever, even. I’m convinced that I still have something to offer, and that I could do my thing for any leader, whether they were a sprinter, Classics rider or climber.
“I’m trying to keep thinking positively, and am still hoping for some good news,” he added. “And I’m not going to be picky. As long as I was still able to ride a nice race programme in 2021, that would be great.”
Vermote’s Cofidis teammate, Dimitri Claeys, is yet another Belgian rider still looking for a team for next year, despite having finished sixth at this year’s rescheduled Tour of Flanders.
“It doesn’t look good,” the 33-year-old admitted. “Every day that passes without news is one too many, and reduces the chance that I’ll still be a professional next year.
“Before the October Classics, I already had the feeling that things were going to be difficult, and Cofidis informed me that they weren’t keeping me on,” said Claeys. “The team is prioritising strengthening the squad around [star climber] Guillaume Martin, and is looking for solutions for a better return from sprinters Elia Viviani and Christophe Laporte, who remain below expectations.
“We’re already in November,” he said. “I fear it’s too late, and that would be a shame because I’m not done with this yet.”
Het Laatste Nieuws also pointed out that Lotto Soudal’s Sander Armée is perhaps in a slightly better position than some of his compatriots in that he remains hopeful that his team will still offer him a contract extension.
“Normally, you get certainty in July and August, and you can start making plenty of plans,” the 34-year-old said. “But COVID-19 has inevitably impacted the transfer market. I just have to deal with the circumstances – and exercise patience, without setting a deadline.
“Lotto-Soudal have certainly not given me a negative signal,” Armée continued. “The message until now has always been that there is still room for me, but that I had to wait a while. I’ve been riding for them now for seven years, so they know my worth. This year, I won a stage at the Tour Poitou-Charentes, and there was also my stage victory at the Vuelta a España [in 2017]. But, above all, I still feel very good physically, and I’m still super motivated.”