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.

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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