One of the best stories in sport is seeing the underdog triumph. Enrico Battaglin’s stage win at the Giro was one example, the conclusion to a thrilling stage with two riders from wildcard teams sprinting for the stage win against Sky’s Dario Cataldo. It took plenty but started with a wildcard invitation, the modest Bardian-CSF team isn’t guaranteed a start in any race.
Europcar’s ejection from the World Tour and the merger of Cannondale and Garmin means only 17 teams have guaranteed entry to the top races. The other places can be given on an invitational basis. For the second division teams, officially labelled “UCI Pro Continental” teams, there’s no bigger prize than an invite to the Tour de France. Here’s a look at the candidates for an invite and the system as a whole. Decisions for an invite are due next month.
Europcar’s situation isn’t certain. They’ve been refused a World Tour place but have not got a Pro Conti licence for 2015. This should be a formality but remains a concern, as hinted here before cutting back their budget won’t be easy.
World Tour vs Pro Conti
Cycling is different from other sports in so many ways and one further example is the racing calendar. First division World Tour teams get a totally different calendar than second division Pro Conti teams. This matters because the top riders can get used to riding grand tours, whether it’s the stamina of riding for three weeks, the experience of the high mountains or the managerial aspect like logistics or coping with grand tour cabin fever. But Pro Conti teams can miss this; even those lucky to get a wildcard will only have nine riders in a grand tour. It all makes for a two-level cycling where the riders in the big teams accumulate experience and stamina while the smaller teams can’t, further reinforcing the gap so when a smaller team does get an invite it’s got a lot of catching up to do.
- Neri Sottoli, otherwise known as Fluo Yellow, should have a default invite as winners of the Coppa d’Italia but just as there’s a rule (11) to allow the team prize winner of this competition an automatic invite, there’s also another rule (13, unlucky for some) which says RCS can ignore the team if it causes damage to the race. Certainly the team’s wildcard invite last year was controversial and they’ve since had more doping scandals. Many will not want to see them at the race but race director Mauro Vegni seems keen to have them.
- Bardiani-CSF are the wildcard certainty given their Italian status and regular triumphs in May. The modest Italian squad had a great Giro last year. With Enrico Battaglin, Stefano Pirazzi and Sonny Colbrelli they can be certain of an invite.
- Androni-Venezuela are the third likely pick but it’s not an obvious choice. Expect Gianni Savio to wave the Italian flag vigorously to compensate for the lack of star riders and the Venezuela name. Franco Pellizotti should swing it for them but he’ll be 37 next May.
- Vegni says he wants four teams so by virtue of counting to four we get Nippo-Vini Fantini. It’s not a pick to get fans excited. Damiano Cunego is their star rider and he still has what it takes, he was in the top-10 on four stages of the Tour of the Basque Country, one of the fiercest races around. But the rest of the squad looks rather light, Romanian sprinter Grosu is interesting, neo-pro Filosi was a great U-23 but needs to plan his career while a young Antonio Nibali could earn the name some publicity
- For the final place it’s hard to pick the foreign invite. Nacer Bouhanni’s already said he won’t ride the Giro so RCS are unlikely to pick them. MTN-Qhubeka were snubbed at the last minute in 2014 but have built a team capable of riding the Tour de France, avoiding fatigue in the Giro could be beneficial. Colombia have been invited in the past and often liven up the race but they suffer because as soon as a rider gets good they’re poached by a bigger team, normal since the rider can hope for a team that pays its wages in full and on time. It’s Catch-22 as they need to put the riders on a big stage in the first place but the diminished roster for 2015 might make this harder. Wanty-Gobert have hired several Italian riders, the plan is to use them to good effect in the Ardennes for local publicity but with the hope of a Giro invite too. United Healthcare have hopes of a Giro start too. They’ve been recruiting Italians as well and will try to appeal to RCS as a way to tap the US market. The US TV audience for the Giro is tiny which might not encourage RCS but they might see this as a start to growing it. Spanish team Caja Rural want to ride but presumably because they get a three week training camp, all expenses paid and it’s hard to see an invite. Polish team CCC Polsat Sprandi have Davide Rebellin and race in Italy quite a bit but Rebellin isn’t a must-have rider for RCS
Tour de France
- Cofidis are assured of a place. They’re a World Tour team in all but licence; their budget is significantly bigger than Europcar’s. But as a Pro Conti team they aren’t obliged to race around the world, something that suits sponsor Cofidis which has operations only in Europe and primarily in France, Spain and Belgium.
- Europcar are next. Even if they weren’t French and Thomas Voeckler was German, Pierre Rolland and Bryan Coquard were Canadians and Romain Sicard was Spanish they’d get invited because they’re a strong enough team but being French and having some exciting options means they’ll be invited, just as long as they get the UCI paperwork in place
- Bretagne-Séché will be invited. The Tour returns to their home region. For this team a start in the biggest race is their biggest win of the year. The team have hired Pierrick Fédrigo while Argentine Eduardo Sepulveda is a real talent denied a ride in the Tour because of injury
- MTN-Qhubeka rode the Vuelta under the eyes of ASO. They’ve been on a hiring spree and with Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Matt Goss, Tyler Farrar and more the team has plenty to offer. Carefully placed stories – “Berhane dreaming of Tour de France start” – regularly link the team to the Tour de France although they might want more profile in L’Equipe to ensure they’re on Monsieur Prudhomme’s radar.
- Who’s the fifth pick? There’s no team with a must-have rider, a squad to invite just so that a star rider can lap France. Take Bora-Argon 18 who’ve lost Leopold König, he was a big reason for the NetApp-Endura team’s invite; ditto Tiago Machado. Sam Bennett is a good sprinter while Jan Barta is a powerful rider. Some might say the team will heighten German interest but surely Marcel Kittel’s thighs will generate more than enough German headlines and that’s before John Degenkolb and André Greipel have their say. The same for those who say picking United Healthcare, a strong ride by Tejay van Garderen will get more headlines than a team without such obvious stars. The same for new Dutch team Roompot who can trade on the Utrecht start but once the team’s left the Netherlands the squad’s not got much celebrity draw. Colombia are fun but haven’t impressed in ASO races like the Dauphiné while the Italians can be ruled out because they live for the Giro
The fifth pick isn’t easy and shows the value of a star rider to a small team. Samuel Sanchez is retiring after no offers of a contract but you can’t help wondering if his presence on a team would help to guarantee them a start, perhaps in the Vuelta at least? I’ve not covered the Spanish invites because they’ll come in the spring meaning there’s a chance for the hopefuls to impress with good riding in the early-season stage races.
Both the Giro and the Tour are expected to issue invites during January. It means no chance for a team to prove itself in the spring but ensures squads have six months plan.
Note the system has World Tour and Pro Continental teams but in reality there are three or even four divisions. We have the 17 World Tour teams as the first division. Then comes the second division where a band of teams can be sure of one or even two grand tour invites, think Cofidis, Europcar and MTN-Qhubeka. The third group sees teams with a possible invitation but they need some luck and some hardwork. Finally there’s a fourth group of teams knowing they’ll not get an invite to a grand tour in 2015 but happy to compete elsewhere, particularly in their local races, think Rusvelo, Topsport Vlaanderen, Drapac or Novo Nordisk. The second division is a big place.
National Preference vs Process
The grand tours are also national events and there’s a clear element of domestic preference. It makes sense because a race needs a high contingent of domestic participants. For all the talk of the Tour de France being a global sports event by far the largest TV audience segment is in France and most of the roadside fans are French and having a régional rider to cheer helps swell the crowds.
But you can’t help wonder if the grand tours could bolster some longer-term planning. Rather than an annual scramble a clearer long-term path to an invite could help. Italy’s wildcard for the best team in the Coppa Italia could be replicated for the Coupe de France series although the danger is that you take these proud individual races and effectively relegate them to Tour qualifiers. There could be other incentives, a pledge to invite a team if it offers clear rider development options for example or a bonus/malus system so teams with a lousy image pay the price and sit out for a year.
But all this places power in the hands of a race, the ability to issue invites confers power that the UCI might prefer to wield. Instead of leaving RCS and ASO to dish out valuable invites, what if the sport had a clearer promotion and relegation system? Development work, riding clean and other good things ought to be systematically rewarded.
With five wildcard invitations instead of the standard four both the Giro and Tour have more choice to pick who they want. But the irony is that there’s less to choose from, the best riders have been snapped up by the big teams. They can fill three or four places with ease but the last spot isn’t such an easy call.
For 2015, IAM’s promotion and Europcar’s ejection from the World Tour will have resulted in the sound of corks popping at Vini Fantini HQ as this opened the way for an almost certain Giro invite for the modest team which might not have arrived had the UCI ruled otherwise; but if they start the race, quite what they’ll do during the rest of the three weeks remains to be seen. But what if there was a more obvious path to an invite, a process rather than praying another team bungles its registration? The wildcard system offers the hope of a winning ticket to some teams but until there’s a clearer system of promotion and relegation it only entrenches the gap between the first and second division teams.