Our (secret) recipe for finding talent

In 2022, Trek-Segafredo is launching four neo-pros into the WorldTour, a specific and strategic choice. Team talent scout Markel Irizar and Head of Performance Josu Larrazabal explain the Team’s scouting process

How many books have been written about the ability to recognize talent in sports?
How many people have written history for discovering a champion? Is there a recipe to identify the sportsmen and sportswomen who have “that special something?”

Talent scouting is a fundamental part of sports, a process that every team at every level and in all disciplines implements. At the same time, trusting in young athletes comes with a risk. Either you gain a significant advantage over the competition, or ultimately fail to capitalize on the investment.

For the past couple of years, Trek-Segafredo has chosen to focus on a strategy to gain this advantage. A strategy that is former rider Markel Irizar who, when he chose to hang up his bike, transitioned from road captain to the Team’s talent scout, and became, from 2020 onward, an integral part of the performance team directed by Josu Larrazabal.

“Since the beginning of Trek’s road project, we have been looking for the best way to search for talent,” explains Josu. “The first step, in the early years, was to give chances to young riders as stagiaires in training camps, watching them closely in action and being able to study them. Jacopo Mosca, for example, was part of that project. Then we established relationships with existing and reliable youth teams, such as Contador and Basso’s Kometa Team, where Matteo Moschetti and Juanpe Lopez came from, giving the opportunity race as stagiaires in races.”

The idea of building an in-house talent scouting project has always been a goal and Markel was the ideal figure to turn this into practice. From there we built our protocol, our recipe for finding talent, which could sound too arrogant to call it 'special' but maybe ‘good’ is not enough. And that’s the reason why we can introduce it, but do not want to reveal everything about it - says Josu

Team Trek -Segafredo STAFF photos pre-2020 season training camp in Sicily/Italy (december 2019) ©kramon

“If I have to make a list of what it takes to be a good talent scout, in the first place I put feeling and the second relational skills,” adds Markel. “My work always starts from the references coming from a network of trusted contacts, first of all the Trek-Segafredo team directors . Essentially, I gather information from several people to build up as complete a picture of a rider as possible, then I go to meet him. Not at race start or at the finish, but on the road to see him at his maximum effort. In those moments you can understand so much. If the first feeling is good, we move on to analyze the numbers, something that is more up to Josu and the Performance Team with the support of Mapei Center. Mine, at this point, is to build a more human profile, discovering the personality and character traits.”

LEUVEN, BELGIUM - SEPTEMBER 25: Elisa Balsamo of Italy poses with the gold medal after the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 - Women Elite Road Race a 157,7km race from Antwerp to Leuven / #flanders2021 / on September 25, 2021 in Leuven, Belgium. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

From this work of analysis, observation and relationships, Trek-Segafredo reaps its first fruits in the upcoming season. With 10 new faces in the men’s Team, four are Under-23 neo-pros (Filippo Baroncini, Marc Brustenga, Asbjorn Hellemose and Daan Hoole) and in the women’s Team Elisa Balsamo (not quite neo-pro but still U23). A significant number that Josu defines as the fruits of a “convinced and strategic choice”.

“Naming Markel as talent scout was the first step. He became our reference for Junior and U23 categories, allowing us to get a complete, global and detailed picture for both. The second step was to build our own database of information and data, to guarantee a long-term and ongoing project. Our scouting and observation process, in fact, does not end when riders become professional. If a young rider we consider interesting signs with another team, this does not mean that we are no longer interested in him.

“Every rider has different times of growth and maturation. Or, a rider may find difficulties to express himself in a given environment. Having followed him could become for us, an advantage when the opportunity to sign him arises. It allows us to see beyond the name and the results. We reduce the margin of error in the choice and make a more considered assessment of the current and potential value of the rider. As of now, we have about 20 riders under supervision.

“At the end, there is a factor of necessity. On the WorldTour there are teams that can afford to buy talent, beating the competition with economically advantageous contract proposals. We’re talking about four to five teams that have a significantly higher-than-average budget. For most teams, including ours, the advantage stays in timing and foresight. Take for example Baroncini, Hoole and Balsamo, all of whom were signed before their international exploits.”

BORGOSESIA, ITALY - OCTOBER 07: Filippo Baroncini of Italy and Team Trek - Segafredo competes during the 105th Gran Piemonte 2021 a 168km race from Rocca Canavese to Borgosesia 350m / @GranPiemonte / on October 07, 2021 in Borgosesia, Italy. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Supporting Josu’s theory is the work put in place by Markel. The case of the 2022 U23 World Champion, Italian Baroncini, can be counted as proof.

“It was a matter of instinct. The first time I saw Baroncini, at the U23 Giro, he impressed me with his personality. The way he relates with his teammates and opponents, the way he moved in the peloton, how he approached the race, showing great calm and control of the situation when he was riding. In my report to Luca and Josu I wrote that I was seeing something special in him. We decided to go deeper, studying numbers and performances, collecting more and more references. Step by step we had the elements to decide it was worth signing him, beating the competition.”

The scouting process is closely linked to the willingness to invest in young riders. A theme that, in recent years, has become very topical in cycling, especially seeing more and more younger talents who are winning on the world stage.

“The tendency to shorten the times of transition into professional cycling is a clear fact, willing or unwilling. We have to deal with it, but from our point of view, without exasperation,” explains Josu.

“The reality is that a young rider, from a physical standpoint, is able to reach a peak performance skipping steps compared to the past. The reflection that follows is how right it is to insist with this choice, if it is actually good for the rider. My opinion is no. As long as a guy wins and brings results, fine. But when that doesn’t happen, when the hiccups come, what happens to his mentality?”

“We have riders in their early 20s at the center of a whirlwind of attention, from teams to media, from fans to sponsors. It creates a very complex system of interests and expectations, in which the opportunities to make mistakes in order to learn, which is the basis of the growth of every human being, are less and less. In the past these situations were experienced by riders around 27 years old. At that age, they already have broad shoulders and learned quite a few lessons to manage the pressure or uncertainty given by accidents or unexpected events, as happens in all sportsmen’s careers.”

“In the light of this, our choice is to offer young riders an alternative and more traditional way to become professional. We have chosen to guarantee a path of development, a progressive growth, by step, both physically and psychologically. One example is racing a Grand Tour. We have young riders who have not yet raced it and, perhaps, that will not even happen in their second year. We are aware that this choice can bring the risk to miss out in signing or re-signing talents, because it’s up to the rider to accept our proposal or not. We take that into account, but as long as those who support us believe in this philosophy, we will continue to pursue it.”

Markel acknowledges that cycling today is much different than it was when he turned pro in 2004.

“I think cycling is going way too fast for young riders. We need to find a balance and give more and more support to them, so they aren’t burned out. We need to ensure a solid growth process. They’re more professionalized, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time they’re exposed to a lot more variables in an increasingly competitive environment.”

“That’s why, when we’re in the final stages of signing a young person, I try to explain what Trek-Segafredo is, how to fit into the entire group, not just the riders. I explain how important it is to have the right relationship with the staff and all the people that work in the Team. I convey the values that the Team and Trek believe in. Finally, I’ll reiterate some evergreen concepts: living a healthy life, which requests sacrifice but is also the only way to make the most with the talent you have,”

There are a lot of talented riders out there, but talent doesn't always equal being good. And, for the way we see it, a good rider can help us build a good family, a good group, which is the basis for building successes. On the other hand, if you put in one bad apple, you risk contaminating the rest - says Markel