The Tour de France has issued its four invitations and as predicted they go to Cofidis, Direct Energie, Fortuneo-Vital Concept and Wanty-Groupe Gobert.
The Giro recently caused controversy by snubbing two Italian teams in order to invite teams from Poland and Russia. In both cases these wildcard picks are too tame, there are 22 teams to chose from yet only a few look capable of finishing a grand tour intact. This is a sign of a structural problem in the sport.
The wildcard invitations are predictable and that’s part of the problem. Once upon a time the sport was such that a small team might have a star in their ranks who shone so brightly they had to be invited. This is rare these days but holds true for Cofidis thanks to the volatile Nacer Bouhanni, one of the few riders outside of the World Tour who beats the big names and big teams on his day. But Wanty-Groupe Gobert? They have a solid roster but no superstars, especially given Lieuwe Westra’s sudden retirement. Only four of their 22 riders have finished a grand tour so far so reaching Paris will be a major, if unstated, goal. Still Guillaume Martin is a promising climber and should be good for a quote give he’s got a masters degree in philosophy, Kenny Dehaes sprints well and they’re bound to fire riders up the road every day just as they tried in the Dauphiné last summer when invited there.
It could be argued that Damiano Cunego is a big name for Nippo-Vini Fantini but he hasn’t won a race for four years. Last year he wore the mountains jersey for much of the Giro before losing out to Mikel Nieve on the final mountain stage, a symbolic subjugation of the Pro Conti invitees to the World Tour’s best funded team. Despite Cunego’s best efforts the team wasn’t a must-have invite for the Giro and we’ll return to the Giro in a minute.
Back to the Tour de France and Direct Energie have Bryan Coquard, Thomas Voeckler, Sylvain Chavanel and the promising Lilian Calmejane. Fortuneo-Vital Concept have suffered the blow of losing new leader Gianni Meersman to an early retirement because of heart condition while Dan McClay was good in the sprints but not a “must have” pick at the moment. Maybe they just got invited back because of Armindo Fonseca. “Who?” you ask. He was the rider who attacked on Stage 3 of the Tour de France last year when nobody else would and did something to enliven an otherwise soporific day.
Fonseca’s attack is an illustration of howthese wildcard teams are no longer brought in win but to “animate” or enliven the race. This is sometimes a euphemism for a pointless attack and the phrase “cannon fodder” springs to mind, especially on flat stages. We see riders from wildcard teams being forced to waste their energy in desperate attacks that will surely fail but at least they provide visual evidence of a race, as compared to a procession of riders across the landscape ahead of an inevitable sprint finish. In return for these brave bids the smaller teams TV airtime and publicity although how valuable imagery of futile riding might be to a brand is up for debate. Anyway the invites go out to teams with slim chances of a stage win or shaping the overall classification, instead these teams have a utility function to enliven the race.
It’s not all wasted energy. One unseen aspect for this blog’s English-speaking readership is the importance of local riders. Follow the Tour and Giro in English and you might not get much news about the lesser teams but these squads get decent daily coverage in the local media. RAI TV’s post stage show Il Processo Alla Tappa features Italian riders every day (arguably too much, to the exclusion of a lot of interesting non-Italian riders but that’s another story) so the Giro needs talkative Italians to retain the TV audiences. The same in France where the crowds and TV all want to cheer on “their” riders; it’s also a land where the regional press sells very well – Brittany’s Ouest France has a circulation bigger than national dailies Le Monde and Le Figaro combined – so while you might not see so much of these wildcard teams if you watch via NBC, Eurosport or ITV, these smaller teams are visible on the local media.
This local aspect could be a reason to invite a foreign wildcard team too. If a race wants to cultivate an audience abroad then it can invite a team from that particular market but it’s not obvious. As ever the World Tour creams off the best riders and if you want to grow an audience surely you need winners that the public can get excited about. Put bluntly if Giro owners RCS want to cultivate an audience in Poland then surely they need to ensure Rafał Majka and Michał Kwiatkowski are on the start line rather than the CCC team.
What if some of the Giro’s wildcards are linked to sponsorship, for example Polish shoe shop CCC is a visible sponsor at RCS races. Do teams pay to race? Nobody is open about this, we’re left guessing and if there’s a correlation between sponsorship and invitations it’s not a perfect match: try and find a Gazprom logo at the Giro if you can. Even if it could be proved would it be a bad thing in what is already a nakedly commercial sport? The Giro itself is not that profitable and money is needed to keep the wheels turning. Still there’d be an irony if the poorer teams had to buy their way in while the wealthier teams tap appearance fees for fielding their better riders. All talk of money would be irrelevant if the Italian Pro Conti teams were stronger, for example the Androni team simply doesn’t have a roster to get that excited about and if the team’s Colombian Egan Bernal is promising, he’s only just turned 20 and so perhaps all the more reason to wait before dropping him into a grand tour.
World Tour cliff edge
The problem is that the system of inviting teams suited a past era better. Today the top talent is in the World Tour and the moment any rider from the Pro Continental ranks starts to look useful they’re snapped up by a bigger team. See Hugh Carthy’s move from Caja Rural to Cannondale-Drapac or Lachlan Morton to Dimension Data whereas once upon a time a smaller team might retain a leader as their entry ticket to a big race. Some teams are fine with this poaching, indeed Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise delights when riders “graduate” into the World Tour but for most other teams it must be destabilising to see their best riders lured away. This creates a structural problem where there’s the World Tour and there’s the rest. To paraphrase Lionel Birnie from a recent edition of The Cycling Podcast it’s almost like the World Tour is a breakaway league such is the chasm between it and the second tier Pro Conti ranks. Only the gap doesn’t just exist there, the Pro Conti teams are a big mix with a handful of strong teams with decent budgets and then several more modest teams.
There’s still talk of shrinking team sizes down to seven riders for the grand tours. This will have knock-on effects but we don’t know what shape they will take. Will it mean a smaller peloton or will it allow for more teams to be invited? Everything else being equal inviting more teams doesn’t sound so exciting given the difficulty in filling the four berths already. But rule change could have a dynamic effect where riders leave big teams for smaller ones because they’ll be able to ride the Tour de France which makes inviting smaller teams more exciting.
The World Tour teams get automatic invitations to all the big races but who to invite from the Pro Conti ranks? It’s not easy, especially for the grand tours. There are 22 teams to chose from yet the pickings are slim. Some options like Cofidis for the Tour de France seem obvious thanks to Nacer Bouhanni, even if the team hasn’t won a stage since 2008; and Bardiani-CSF have a roster and record to merit a Giro start… but others are a stretch. Being local helps but it’s no guarantee, see the Giro where Androni and Nippo-Vini Fantini are left out. If they can’t win then these teams get praise for trying. Think of them as “content providers”, an ugly phrase but useful nonetheless as they’ll attack when nobody else will and if this doesn’t always bring action it does at least supply a breakaway on those flat days when nothing else is going to happen during hours of live TV. Better still and often unseen these smaller teams have local roots and they’ll bring out people to the roadside and once the stage is done they’ll feature in the regional media.