Wildcard Hunting

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.

Nacer Bouhanni Paris-Nice Romans sur Isere 2016

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.

19 thoughts on “Wildcard Hunting”

  1. Actually, there was some news on Latvian media when Astana ‘gregari’ Gatis Smukulis moved down to Delko-Marseille-KTM with a goal to be team leader. It was stated that there are high hopes of either Tour or Vuelta invite and Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix is a certain with some more spring races.

  2. I for one would like to see Westra do well. If nothing else his ride for Nibabli on the cobbles in 2014 will live long in my memory.

    Always felt he might be capable of more so good luck to him.

  3. With a possible reduction in team size to 8 riders, does this open up to 5 wildcards?

    I would expect that a MPCC membership would be a prerequisite for participation.

    It is unfortunate there isn’t a strong PCT team from Great Britain, it would be a good alternative, given the cycling in GB right now.

    From a globalization point of view, there are not many competitive options – i.e. to suck in more eyeballs.

    Luckily there are international riders on every team.

    I would like to add that I was impressed with the spectator support at the Tour of Rwanda.

  4. With the Grand Depart in Germany it’s a shame there’s no German PCT team, with Bora going up and Stoelting kind of dissapearing.
    I think Roompt could make a decent claim. They’ve got a nice roster and Pieter Weening has shown he’s still got something in his legs at a WT race this year. Would love to see Novo Nordisk given a nod. Yes i know they lack quality but they do have 5 French riders… grasping at straws but i love the team.

    But it’s hard to look past Wanty for that 4th spot. Westra is still a bit of a name, if on the rapid decline. Then in Offredo, Martin, Levarlet and Doubey they’ve got the national interest. It’s a solid team that could field well at the Tour.

    But the PCT seems to be well down on ability and diversity in teams. Outside of the heartland nations you’ve got CCC, Cycling Academy, Gazprom, Manzana, Novo Nordisk and UHC. And they kind of lack in quality compared to the other teams. It’s not great to have such a big drop off between the WT and PCT. It makes the promotion/relegation idea look silly because of the gulf in quality.

    • I think the bolstering of the 2nd Division and the tangible benefits of being in this 2nd Division is the key to a heathier eco-system.
      Based on the hard-wired intention to reduce the peloton size and indeed, WorldTeam licences, the 2nd Division would suddenly be a different prospect to rider quality and sponsors if:
      – New WorldTeams were no longer allowed to exist from scratch, i.e. they’d have to be an existing Pro-Conti Team
      – WorldTour events would only allow WorldTeams + Pro-Conti Teams, without exception
      – Number of WorldTeams = 16
      If the number of guaranteed starts were to be 16, that would leave potentially 6 Pro-Conti slots, which would churn a better investment % into the development and uptrending of standards of the best Pro-Conti teams. It’s not so different than the EPL for football; the pretenders will never be able to quite make the cut, the aspirational ones with the right funding, focus and psyche make the promotion and stay in the Top Division for at least a couple seasons.

      • The idea of being Pro Conti first before moving up can have its merits, the idea of proving yourself and establishing the core of a team before expanding to the World Tour, a chance to build a project rather than suddenly assembling a team (Sky’s roster in 2010 looks amusing compared to what they’ve become; Bahrain has had to hire those available etc). But sitting in cycling’s second division could put off some sponsors who won’t want their name on a second-tier team.

  5. Even without Bouhanni, Cofidis are always picked – often seemingly without a particularly good reason. And he’s definitely box office – for all the wrong reasons. He’s like Abdou without the talent.
    Great news that the race organisers have reduced the team numbers to 8 riders. Hopefully, the next step is 7 (now that really would mean that GC contenders would be left to ride alone more often) and then they can invite more wildcard teams.
    Presumably, the UCI were doing nothing on this because Velon are against it, the big teams wishing to keep their dominance.

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