Direct Energie have applied to the UCI for a World Tour licence for next year. The team has been in the World Tour before when it was sponsored by Europcar and its current sponsor has just been bought by French oil major Total meaning it’s theoretically got a line of funding that could make Team Sky feel jealous. Just one problem though: there’s no World Tour licence to spare.
Direct Energie has been successful at what it does, a French Pro Conti team, it’s hard the right blend of promise and results to justify invitations to the Tour de France, Lilian Calmejane won a stage last year and if this year’s Tour was blank, they still tried and would regularly flood the day’s breakaway, the kind of animation that invitees are expected to deliver. At the same time, as a Pro Conti squad they’ve not had all the costs a World Tour team faces. The licence itself isn’t that expensive, the UCI fee is about €80,000 compared to €20,000 for a Pro Conti one, instead it’s having to race three grand tours a year while also competing on other fronts simultaneously, for example sending eight riders and support staff to the Giro but also having a team do the Tour of California while also having riders getting read for the Dauphiné and Tour de France. All of this requires a deep roster and more support staff as well as vehicles. There’s been no need for this, Direct Energie is a French alternative energy provider so there’s been close to no commercial imperative to race the Giro or Guanxi; in Belgium the company has a brand called Poweo and the team races with the Poweo logo there but that’s about as international as they’ve wanted. In short they’ve been a Pro Conti team with an almost guaranteed golden ticket to start the Tour de France.
So the application for a World Tour licence for 2019 is curious. The press release announcing the plan pointed to how they were on the attack a lot in the Tour and good on them for trying but it didn’t set out much more reasoning why they should move up. The sponsor Direct Energie and the boss Xavier Caïtucoli says he’s pleased with the team and wants things to move up. Yes Total has taken over the firm but there’s not a whisper of the presence of the multinational and if the new owners were to have plans to ramp up spending on cycling it’s unlikely they’d have hatched them less than a month after the takeover so for now Total hasn’t mentioned anything.
What’s odder still is that the current UCI rulebook suggests there’s no point applying. First here’s one of the UCI rules (my highlighting)
What this means is that any team with a licence today doesn’t have to worry about its roster having enough UCI points to meet the sporting criteria, they just have to meet the admin, financial criteria and ethical criteria, like having the funding in place, the minimum number of riders on the books and so on. No team is going to be relegated from the World Tour for bad results or a lack of points; Dimension Data are safe, ditto BMC Racing which seems to have an exodus of riders (Porte, Teuns, Caruso, Bettiol, Dennis, van Garderen, Wyss, Küng) but is safe providing it hires enough new names. Indeed were a current team to fold then there’s still no space. Here’s the next rule:
This says that in the event of World Tour team stopping the licence isn’t there for another team anyway, the number of teams will shrink. So these two rules say no existing team can be relegated and should any squad have financial or ethical problems their licence won’t go to anyone else anyway.
So why the application? It’s an odd move, does Jean-René Bernaudeau know something about other teams that we don’t? It is a PR move to say “look we think we belong with the big teams” in the wake of a Tour de France when they showed plenty but struggled to deliver? If so the risk is one of the UCI saying “sorry, you don’t” in the coming months. That said the pro conti ranks are an odd place at times, just look at the deal between Aqua Blue and Verandas Willems that was announced by the Irish team yesterday only for the other team to say “hang on” and the announcement to vanish. Also the UCI has finessed things in the past, inviting the likes of IAM Cycling to join the World Tour in order to ensure the top tier actually had the right number of riders but that was a fix and this time nothing seems broken. One theoretical path is a World Tour team asks to be relegated and since this isn’t “dissolution or termination” from the team then potentially the licence could be given to someone else but why would a team surrender a UCI World Tour licence and the advantages that come with it?
Why apply? It’s not clear, it could be the sports admin version of going in the early breakaway during the opening week of the Tour de France: to get noticed before being reeled in later on. It’s ambitious but it’s hard to see how Direct Energie get a spot in the World Tour next year unless they know something that isn’t in the public domain.
Either way it’s useful example to explore the current World Tour licence situation because no teams are worried about losing their spot at the moment, there’s no frantic dash to recruit riders for their points at the moment. The UCI announced plans to shrink down from 18 teams to 16 back in 2016, these have seen been delayed by a year but if these plans continue then there could be worry ahead for the teams for 2020. But that will only make it harder for a Pro Conti team to move up.