Wanty-Groupe Gobert have announced they’ve signed Lieuwe Westra for 2017. Can this get them a wildcard place in the Tour de France?
The Tour de France is far away but the invitations are issued early in the new season so they’re based on what we know today rather than results gained in the spring. Here’s a look at the contenders hoping for the golden ticket.
As a reminder there should be 18 teams with automatic participation rights to the Tour de France and the race can invites four more teams from the second tier of Pro Continental teams. This start is valuable, the Tour de France has audiences and reach that dwarf everything else. Just see how much some of the World Tour teams have spent to guarantee themselves a place by hiring riders with the requisite points.
Once upon a time teams would be invited because they had a must-have rider. Think Astana in 2007 when Alexandre Vinokourov was the pre-race pick. This pick turned sour faster than a blood bag left on the back seat of a team car on a sunny day when “Vino” was thrown off the race for doping and instead of an invite the next year Astana were blocked. Other times the race has wanted to make a point, for example picking in the wake of this scandal the self-declared clean team Slipstream-Chipotle were given a try and some explicit support. In the past these invites could out as late as June but they’ve got earlier and earlier and last year’s invites were issued at the start of March, long before any team could prove itself during the season.
Today the wildcard picks are not so obvious. There are no grand tour contenders in the Pro Continental ranks. Talent is snapped up by the bigger teams, see Hugh Carthy swapping Caja Rural for Cannondale-Drapac. With reduced star factor nationality is a selection criteria. The French teams’ nationality is a plus as it draws in the media and with it the public and the race needs a solid cohort of domestic teams. Nationality works the reverse way, for the Tour de France the Italian Pro Conti teams are out of the equation because they live for the Giro. Put crudely if they picked their best nine riders for May this means barrel-scraping for July. This is also why the Giro is unlikely to issue a wildcard to a French team and why Caja Rural won’t be riding the Tour de France because they need to get ready for the Vuelta.
Nationality is a much broader topic than a convenient flag. Delko-Marseille-KTM are French but only have six domestic riders to pick from, the majority of the squad are foreigners and regardless of nationality they’re not an obvious pick on results or popularity so an invite for July looks unlikely.
Fortuneo-Vital Concept are French but their best riders are foreign with Argentine Eduardo Sepúlveda, Briton Dan McLay alongside Belglaisn Boris Vallée who took four of the team’s nine wins this year and new signing Gianni Meersman. Sepúlveda is still tipped as a big talent, 25 and has overcome some setbacks and banked the Tour de France in his legs this year. The team’s big signing is Gianni Meersman who goes from being a reserve sprinter at Etixx-Quickstep to team leader. Reculer pour mieux avancer, a retreat to better advance in that the smaller team will look to Meersman for their big occasions rather than leave him at home. The team promise “animation”, a euphemism for going in the day’s pointless breakaway which is fruitless but the race is poorer if someone doesn’t do it.
Cofidis are a certainty. With a budget of €9.8 million they’re closing to spending as much as some World Tour teams although results are scarce. They’re all about Nacer Bouhanni, of the team’s 15 wins this year he took 12. The sprinter is enough to secure them an invite to the Tour de France and other races, on his day he can outsprint the best and even without endangering his rivals. His rivals may fear him, fans may boo him but you wonder if cynically he’s box office because of the volatility?
Direct Energie had a flying start to 2016 but a quiet Tour de France. With Bryan Coquard they have France’s most prolific winner but as ever the quantity is there with Coquard, it’s the quality that’s missing. 13 wins in 2016 but all in lower-tier French races. He had that close call in the Tour de France where Marcel Kittel won the photo finish in Limoges and he was fourth in the Amstel Gold Race. If he had a stronger lead-out he might get more wins. Sylvain Chavanel and Thomas Voeckler are set to retire but can still draw the crowds and help swing an invitation while Lilian Calmejane’s Vuelta stage win will have impressed too.
Three French teams so who gets the fourth spot? We’ve ruled out the Italians already. All Russian team Gazprom were a surprise invite for the Giro d’Italia and delivered a stage win with Sacha Foliforov and are stronger with three recruits from Tinkoff and four from Katusha but this probably makes them a pick for the Giro again but will they have Colnago bikes again as an intro? New Irish team Aqua Blue Sport have several fast finishers and climbing ace Stefan Denifl but as a new team they’ll be expected to prove themselves in their first season, little is known of the management or the sponsors behind the team.
Which brings us to Wanty-Gobert. They can play the French card with four Frenchmen including the promising climber Guillaume Martin as well as Yoann Offredo. Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, one of several to get weighed down with a “next Tom Boonen” label joins and brings some World Tour weight to replace the departing Enrico Gasparotto who delivered the team’s biggest ever win in the Amstel. Which brings us to Lieuwe Westra, the team’s latest and final signing. Is his name enough to open the door for the team? Perhaps. Of late he’s been to DNFs what Bradley Wiggins is to retirement announcements with a string of them. He had a great spring with a win in the Three Days of De Panne but hasn’t finished a race since May and went into a spiral that saw him think and say out loud he was going to quit the sport. He’s a hard rider to label because he’s versatile and was part of the team that helped Vincenzo Nibali win the Tour in 2014. Now he could have his own chances again.
First Mover Advantage
The Tour announced its wildcards in March this year, the Giro in January. This gives the Italian race a head start. It too is likely to invite three home teams. Bardiani-CSF won the season-long Coppa Italia so they get an auto-invite. Italo-Japanese team Nippo-Vini Fantini maybe cultivated with persistent Fuji grande partenza talk. Will Androni or Willier-Selle Italia make the cut or perhaps both have to invited since there are no Italian teams left in the World Tour and the scene needs all the help it can get (assuming the UCI grants licences in the wake of Pay to Race). But if the fourth pick is foreign then should the Giro invited Gazprom or Wanty-Gobert in January they’d the teams would have to say si straight away and implicitly rule themselves out of the Tour de France because they’d be rinsed come July. Would a Giro invitee decline the offer in the hope of a ride in July? Very risky and this earlier pick gives the Italian race the ability to draft in the team it wants.
Picking teams for the Tour de France may seem premature but just look at the contest between teams to ensure a World Tour spot before the UCI reversed the decision to shrink down to 17 teams, a huge part of the value behind this is the certainty of a start in the Tour de France. It’s a big deal for these teams who’d qualify anyway so for a smaller team crossing its fingers it’s a huge event that can define a team’s season and shape its future sponsorship.
If it’s 18 World Tour teams plus four wildcard invitations for the Tour de France then who to pick? Cofidis because Nacer Bouhanni is one of the few riders outside of the World Tour capable of winning a stage plus they’re a French team. Fortuneo-Vital Concept are French too even if their best riders are not and they can still bring something to the race. Direct Energie are likely picks too. So the fourth pick? It’s not easy because it’s not obvious and maybe they just invite three teams? Gazprom are a big name but don’t yet have a team to match the corporate image. The signing of Lieuwe Westra might swing it for Wanty-Groupe Gobert.