ASO have announced the four “wildcard” invitations for the 2012 Tour de France starting on 30 June in Liège, Belgium.
Dutch squad Argos-Shimano are picked alongside French teams Cofidis, Europcar and Saur-Sojasun to join the 18 World Tour teams in the race. The choice is logical.
18 teams get automatic entry in to the Tour de France. These are the UCI World Tour teams and they’re all listed in the Team Guide. In addition the race organiser gets to pick four “wildcard” invitations from the lesser UCI Pro Continental teams. The idea here is to invite promising teams who will enliven the race and to pick domestic teams to ensure roadside crowds and national TV have someone to interview in the home language.
The Tour is in a unique position as the world’s biggest bike race so spaces come at a premium and inviting local squads can come at the expense of others. But I think the organisers have made sensible picks.
Argos-Shimano are an enticing prospect with Marcel Kittel and John Dekenkolb for the sprints and come with other riders capable of livening up the race, for example French climber Alex Geniez. Plus the team has a visible commitment to ethics, something which Tour de France organiser Christian Prudhomme is always pleased to see. The Frenchman even went to Rotterdam for the Argos team launch last week, a sure sign an invite was pending.
I wasn’t sure about Cofidis. The wheels have come off the French team in 2012 thanks to injury and misfortune. Staff were murmuring about black cats. But they are a French team and the Tour needs local riders. If the bad luck stops then they’re sure to animate the race with the likes of Rein Taaramae. They’ve only had one win this year thanks to Samuel Dumoulin… but that’s more than automatic invites Ag2r and Saxo Bank have yet to win a race in Europe too.
Europcar were the nailed-on, bet your house, certain invitation. Thomas Voeckler’s ride last year had ASO, L’Equipe and much of France in rapture and with Pierre Rolland too an invitation was obvious. The mere presence of Voeckler in the race will draw TV audiences and roadside crowds.
Saur-Sojasun come with Jérôme Coppel for the overall. In his first grand tour he finished a creditable 14th overall last summer and with improvement and a course suited to his time trialling skills he could crack the top-10. Decent but the team comes with several attacking riders to seal the deal. They might appear the lightest invitation but actually they’ve won five races this year including Julien Simon’s two stages in the Tour of Catalonia. Team manager Stéphane Heulot is a man with a plan and trying to build a cohesive team for the future. Note every single rider on the squad is French, a rare homogeneity in a globalised world.
I was told by ASO the invites would be publicised in early February but it seems uncertainty over the fate of the Saxo Bank team has delayed the decision.
I did a piece in January speculating on the invites and today confirms my thoughts from then. I had wondered if Team Type 1 would worry Cofidis or Saur-Sojasun but this isn’t the case. These are steady picks, nothing like the Giro inviting Team NetApp which surprised many. The picks seem logical, especially since the strongest teams are already invited. 85 days to go.