Every year a few riders lose out on a start in the Tour de France. The likes of Caleb Ewan and Nacer Bouhanni are left fuming and other strong riders who may have been able to go for stage wins are left frustrated too. At the same time the wildcard teams lack lustre, reduce to going on fruitless long range breaks for notoriety. What if instead of inviting an uncompetitive team from the lesser ranks, a special invite went to a composite team made up of those who lost out in the selection for their team?
One solution would be to invite three usual teams from the pro conti ranks and then, the novelty, form a fourth team out of riders who have missed out on selection for the Tour. They’re ready to race and keen to prove a point and with guaranteed entry into the Tour de France there should be sponsors willing to pony up some cash to fund costs and expenses like staff and a team bus in return for their name on the jersey. Perhaps the riders can keep their team bikes.
Another solution is would be to allow rejected riders to make a temporary transfer, to create draft system where eligible riders, with the consent of their current teams, could put themselves forward and if a wildcard teams wants they could ask them to join for July. Either way there’s a supply of strong riders and a demand to see them in the race.
It’s not new. In the past the Tour de France used to be ridden by national teams only plenty of riders not picked for their home nation would find refuge in another squad. For example in 1956 Roger Walkowiak was dropped from the French team after bailing out of the Vuelta a España early – NB it was held in April then – and instead rode the Tour de France with the regional team “Nord-Est-Centre” and won the race with them.
Only it’s stacked with problems. It could be gamed, a rider may have another jersey for July but they’re still linked to their existing team and so could work, overtly or covertly, for their real employer. They also need helpers, to bring Caleb Ewan is one thing but where does his lead out train go?
It could also get very fraught for team cohesion. The Tour de France is the big shop window and riders left on the bench may want to take this opportunity to shine. But their team may have plans for them later in the season, which is exactly the case of Nacer Bouhanni. He wasn’t selected for the Tour de France and the team have told him he will ride the Vuelta instead. If Bouhanni did do the Tour the risk is he’d be fatigued for the Vuelta instead so the chances of Cofidis agreeing to let him ride the Tour are low even if the rules allowed for it.
Then even if this system did exist it would only reinforce the Tour de France’s central position on the calendar, where even riders who can’t ride then find a way to take part and therefore reduce the chances of them racing elsewhere in the coming months.
Lastly those wildcard teams are not so bad. If they didn’t race then who would go up the road? Dion Smith has the polka dot jersey today, Kevin Ledanois the day before and Sylvain Chavanel did a long breakaway, it’s not gripping action but nor would be more sprinters sitting tight all day.
There are riders forced to sit out the Tour de France and their presence in July could be more exiting than some of the wildcard teams. The idea of a team of rejects has a certain charm, like something out of a Hollywood film: a bunch of down-and-outs determined to redeem themselves, prove their boss wrong and make the Tour even more exciting. That said there’s a pile of practical objections to the idea listed above and there must be more still. Besides if the wildcard teams don’t get the mouth watering ahead of the race they fulfil their role. If anything limiting the number of star riders in the Tour de France ought to make upcoming races like the Vuelta that bit better.