The final invitations have gone out and B&B Hotels – Vital Concept and Arkéa-Samsic get the last two places for the Tour de France. They’re obvious picks but there’s a little bit of detail to explore.
First there used to be four wildcard invitations but with Cofidis moving up to the World Tour that means 19 teams in the top level with automatic invites, and so three remaining spots among the ProTeams. New for 2020 is that the top-ranked ProTeam from last year Total Direct Energie – more about them in a minute – gets an invite too, leaving just two places to be filled by the organisers.
Arkéa-Samsic (an online bank and an employment agency) are the obvious choice, Warren Barguil is a rare World Tour level rider outside of the World Tour but last year they went on a spending spree and hired Nairo Quintana and his entourage, plus Nacer Bouhanni. When the stories first emerged last May about Quintana it sounded fanciful and even now it’s a done deal it’s taking some adjustment to get used to seeing him in their red jersey. Even when he has a bad Tour he can win big mountain stages and so must be a dream signing for a squad that’s yet to win a World Tour race, indeed on paper they’re a more promising prospect for July than notionally bigger World Tour squads like Israel and NTT. So far, so obvious but it’ll be interesting to see how the team fares this year given the big changes and the fresh expectations as they’ve had a chaotic streak. You might remember them changing bike sponsor mid-season in 2018. André Greipel was a big signing last year but had a small season. Even victories in smaller races .1 and .2 races have been few and far between. Late last year they applied for a World Tour licence but they never had the ranking points in the first place and duly lost their application fee. In short the management needs to prove itself as much as the riders.
B&B Hotels-Vital Concept (budget hotels and farm supplies) have been overlooked in the last two years when Wanty-Gobert pipped them. The sponsors’ patience was being tested but they’ve stuck with the team and now got the reward. Only while excluded from the Tour de France they’ve never given the Tour de France organisers reason to regret their decision, recent performances in Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné have been discreet to put it kindly. Bryan Coquard is good but has yet to win a World Tour race and Pierre Rolland has been unlucky with crashes of late but hasn’t won a race of any kind since joining the team. Still, as invitees they’re not just going to be breakaway cannon fodder with Coquard looking for hilly sprints and Rolland a long shot for the mountains jersey, they can start many a stage with an plan rather than firing riders into moonshot breakaways for the sake of “animation”.
Total Direct Energie (an alternative energy supplier) get an automatic invite because they topped the UCI rankings last year. The problem was that achieving this at the end of the season didn’t bring anything else, there’s no increase in budget and it was too late to go shopping for more riders. Consequently they’ve turned down the Giro and oddly enough the Dauphiné too (France’s second biggest stage race). They could probably count on riding the Tour de France all along regardless of the rule change but their problem is they haven’t beefed up the roster, they only twice cracked the top-10 in the last Tour and often missed the breakaway on the key breakaway stages. They might be backed by oil major Total but this happened by accident following a takeover, rather than a deliberate marketing decision and so far there’s no sign of any petrodollars pouring into the team. They retain a handy spring classics squad in Niki Terpstra, Damien Gaudin, Anthony Turgis and Adrien Petit but Lilian Calmejane is an outsider for a stage win in July at best.
The teams who lose out are Circus-Wanty Gobert but they’ve ridden the last two editions and having lost Guillaume Martin they’ve replaced him with any “must have” riders for July. Alpecin-Fenix aren’t in a hurry to ride and star attraction Mathieu van der Poel has other goals this summer which negates their invitation. And that’s it, the Italian teams will be rinsed by the Giro, the Spanish ones put all their eggs in the Vuelta basket and none of the other squads look ready for a grand tour.
An end or a means to an end?
So what about the invite, it’s what happens in July that counts? Just starting the Tour de France is a big deal as sponsors know there will be airtime and column inches, VIPs can be invited and promotional campaigns launched. Actual sporting success is harder to come by and a stage win or the yellow jersey for a day remains a goal but arguably it’s a bonus on top.
Frankly there’s not much excitement about filling the remaining places. Yet this still ought to matter because the alternative scenario is worse. Imagine no challenger teams getting a chance and we’d have a closed system with 19 top teams and the teams on the outside would be even weaker because any rider outside the World Tour would know they have zero chance of doing the Tour de France so even fewer top talents would sign with second tier teams, a self-fulfilling scenario that would shrink the peloton yet further. Finally note the rude health of French cycling as there will be six French teams in Nice, three in the world tour and now three invitees.
Predictable choices? Yes, to the point that this blog post has been sitting as a draft for a month now awaiting the news. Arkéa-Samsic are a must-have thanks to Nairo Quintana and even if you’re not sold on him, tell me what Israel or NTT can do better with their guaranteed starts. Total Direct Energie get a regulatory invite but they’re in a delicate position, they had a weak showing last year but haven’t made any signings that will fix this but Terpstra and Calmejane can still shine. B&B-Vital get the last slot, they’re the best of the remaining picks but hardly an essential ingredient for July but unlike wildcards of the past they can start many stages with a plan rather than just hoping to fire riders up the road on sprint stages.