If the 2017 Tour de France does end up on the HC calendar for 2017 then a maximum of 14 out of 20 teams can come from the World Tour, meaning at least four World Tour teams won’t get an invitation to ride the Tour de France. The Tour is the biggest race with huge media coverage but every year even the most assiduous follower can forget a certain team is in the event. With this in mind which teams could be left out come July 2017?
If you’re into Schadenfreude then this could be a fun exercise but the real story behind this is the panic it will sow among several teams and sponsors.
- Lampre-Merida: for years the only reminder they were in the race was when “Cunego en difficulté” crackled over race radio on the first mountain stage. They remain heavily focused on the Giro, lack a big sprinter and Rui Costa, DNF, is exciting but not compulsory. They won a stage thanks to Ruben Plaza but still conspired to finish fifth last in the prize money rankings, a proxy for visibility
- If Lotto-Jumbo were a football team they’d have sacked their manager because of poor results. In fact they’ve “parted ways” with Erik Dekker. Robert Gesink’s ride in July was encouraging but they’re not a must-have team based on results, even if Wilco Kelderman and Moreno Hofland remain very promising
- Cannondale-Garmin are an underdog team. Once upon a time the Chipotle team won a wildcard from ASO, charmed by the team’s loud anti-doping message, a Unique Selling Point that’s gone quiet now, as have their results of late
- IAM Cycling seem like a nice outfit with great kit but their underdog status means they struggle in July. Like Gesink Mathias Frank had a strong GC ride but it’s not must-have
So far that’s four teams ejected leaving a UCI-approved 14 invites.
Remember IAM Cycling could stop unless a co-sponsor comes on board, Tinkoff will stop unless a new sponsor arrives and Katusha are looking for a new sponsor too. So we could see a World Tour in 2017 of 15 or 16 teams in which case only one or two teams need to be left out. The risk added by the warring and politicking will only deter sponsors, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Who to invite?
Who replaces the unloved World Tour teams? It’s headscratcher because the alternatives are no better and some are wildly worse. Cofidis are a shoo-in given they’re French and if it wasn’t for Nacer Bouhanni crashing so often, capable of results too. Fortuneo-Vital get the nod, the new Bretagne-Séché will keep home fans happy and they’re a team on the up, by 2017 they could be competitive. Direct Energie, the new Europcar, gets the nod too. If the mooted start in Düsseldorf happens then Bora-Argon 18 go too. So far, so normal since these four teams got wildcards last summer.
Two more to pick. Italians Bardiani-CSF and Androni live for the Giro so they’d send their B-teams, we’ll ignore them; ditto Caja Rural who are all about the Vuelta. Rusvelo issued a press release saying the spat between ASO and the UCI creates “a wonderful situation” as their chances of an invite shoot: touchingly optimistic. United Healthcare could be a fun but they’ve had wildcards before, for example, Paris-Roubaix but were not visible. CCC Sprandi‘s orange kit is visible but so is their lack of results outside of Davide Rebellin. Wanty Groupe Gobert? Hard to know what they’d bring. There are more French teams to invite like Delko Marseille but as much as the Tour needs to spark home interest, there’s a saturation point. The likes of Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and others will soak up the majority of domestic media attention and if the race needs French riders it’s got plenty to go around already.
- Le Shortcut: one way to boost chances of an invite is to hire an unmissable Frenchman. Cannondale-Garmin’s recruitment of Pierre Rolland left many scratching their heads but it could be a superb insurance policy for the team: would ASO leave him out? Thibaut Pinot’s contract is up at the end 2017: hire him and you ride the Tour de France. The market value of Warren Barguil, Nacer Bouhanni, Alexis Gougeard, Julian Alaphilippe, Alexis Vuillermoz could soar while Romain Bardet and Pierre Latour are locked into Ag2r until the end of 2018.
The Serious Bit
So far all this is fantasy speculation, the kind of game you might toy with riding pals at café or on a forum. But imagine being the manager of Lotto-Jumbo or the person in charge of marketing at Merida right now: they must look like like character in one of Edward Munch’s The Scream paintings. They’re committing millions of their marketing budget to a team that could sit out the Tour de France: a risk too big to ignore. Here’s Jonathan Vaughters in a Velonews interview out today:
“End of the day, every high-level, highly funded team out there is not going to be able to continue with their high-level sponsors if they’re not in the Tour de France. I think most teams, their sponsorship contracts read along the lines of, ‘If you’re not in the Tour de France we can terminate the contract.’ That is a very scary prospect.“
Which brings us to the serious point: ASO’s strategy is an invitation to teams to skip the World Tour all together and to break up the Velon alliance. Remember the 70% upper limit for World Tour teams starting a race. If you’re a team or a sponsor unsure whether you’ll fit into ASO’s preferred group of 13-14 World Tour teams then better to apply for a Pro Conti licence because there’s no limit to invitations for this category. If Team Sky and Etixx-Quickstep are a World Tour teams they’d surely get an invite, if they were Pro Conti they’d surely get an invite too. But Lampre, Lotto, IAM or Cannondale? Quit the World Tour and your chances of riding the Tour de France actually rise.
In strategic jargon ASO’s move smashes the current “Nash equilibrium”. Currently all the 18 teams subscribe to a system that delivers the scenario of a ride in the Tour de France, the golden ticket. If ASO goes ahead and registers the Tour de France as an HC race this balance changes, teams can stay in the World Tour but some face an uncertain position regarding their strategic aim of participating in the Tour de France and they and their sponsors get panicky. Quit the World Tour and they move back into an equilibrium knowing their Pro Conti status places no limits on their invitation so a ride in July looks safe again.
Faced with this the Velon teams have an almost impossible task. If Lampre or Cannondale get flicked by ASO then BMC Racing, Team Sky, Giant-Alpecin and the others all need to decline ASO’s invitation to the Tour in solidarity. Only as Vaughters makes clear in the quote above that’s a huge ask bordering on impossible.
Meanwhile the UCI is standing firm at the moment. This can look stubborn but it has to because its reforms were voted and approved by its Management Committee. Brian Cookson and colleagues to make up new plans in a hurry. But the change in the facts could well prompt a change of minds in due course. Failing this there’s a potential exit route via more rule changes, perhaps abolishing the 70% invitation threshold rule which, at a stroke, undoes some of ASO’s fear factor over the teams but re-writing the rulebook in a hurry isn’t easy and brings a sweep of unintended consequences.
If the Tour de France is registered as an HC-race for 2017 then it no longer has to take the 18 World Tour teams but can instead invite up to 14 World Tour teams. In plain sporting terms this is bad, teams like Lampre-Merida or IAM Cycling may have had discreet time last July but they’re still vastly superior to teams that don’t even merit a wildcard right now.
But it’s not about the racing and fantasy picks, ASO’s may diminish the startlist but the move appears to be a highly strategic decision. By registering with the UCI they can stay inside the system while pulling the rug out from the UCI’s valuable World Tour and sowing panic among many teams, potentially splitting the Velon group in the process. Several current World Tour squads could find it safer to ride under a Pro Conti label. So if ASO pulls its races then not only will the World Tour calendar shrink but so could its teams. This could devalue the World Tour concept to the point where the UCI faces the unpalatable choice of promoting a reformed World Tour without the major races and major teams or backing down. It’s not about which teams get invited.