You could argue that Belgium is the world’s top cycling nation. You can state with more certainty that Omega Pharma- Lotto is Belgium’s top team, thanks to the presence of Philippe Gilbert and Jurgen Van Den Broeck, not to mention André Greipel.
Yet despite all of this the team didn’t get invited to the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman because the team initially declined to send the right men and ASO preferred to pick another more hungry team.
Whilst Qatar and Oman are not high profile target events they are increasingly becoming important, in the way the early season races in France once used to be: essential training, a chance to mark rivals and to get the team on the road. Above all a way to tune the legs in warmer weather ahead of the spring classics. So the lack of an invite is a pain for the Belgium outfit.
It’s a glimpse into the future where teams might struggle to meet their obligations all season. The rules require World Tour teams to participate in the major races but the risk is that “B teams” are sent and thus the organiser is forced to exclude a more hungry local team. Take the Tour of California, it has all the ingredients to become a great race but some European teams simply have little interest in showcasing their brands to a US audience, they prefer the Giro, Dauphiné and Tour de France. The likes of Ag2r or Lampre have to attend whilst some US teams get excluded.
Thinking aloud, what about a “continent rule”, where a team registered in one continent, eg Europe, can forfeit its participation in a race on another continent, eg Australia, to a local team? Perhaps capping this joker card to no more than three times a season?
Either way, if the World Tour offers certainty of entry, the duties this imposes on some teams means rosters will be stretched and from time to time. It’s a shame if teams end up sending sub-standard squads whilst keener local squads get frozen out.