It’s not easy being a grand tour organiser at the moment and one extra headache is which team to grant a wildcard invitation because they can only invite two compared to four before and the excluded teams could be in jeopardy if sponsors flee. It seems the organisers of all three have asked cycling’s governing body to waive the rules limiting the number of teams that can take part in order to allow an extra team in each race.
A reminder that there are 19 World Tour teams and they must start all World Tour races, while Alpecin-Fenix were ranked as the best ProTeam of 2020 and so get an automatic invite to the World Tour races but it’s only an invitation, not an obligation. Currently the UCI rules say grand tours can have a maximum of 22 teams so 19 + 1 = 2 wildcard invitations to spare. This is causing a headache for all the three grand tours and their home Pro Teams.
For the Giro, organisers RCS can choose between Androni-Sidermec, Bardiani-CSF, new team Eolo-Kometa and Vini Zabu. They have to because otherwise there are no Italian teams in the race and while all grand tours are enjoyed around the world, the domestic audience remains the most important. Now of the three grand tours the Giro ought to be the easiest because Vini Zabu returned a positive doping test in last year’s Giro, a scandal that was overshadowed by the rider strike, but enough for Mauro Vegni to put a large asterisk onto their ledger. Also the convention is that new teams can wait a year to establish themselves before getting an invite… that said you could spot Eolo advertising hoardings at RCS races.
For the Tour de France, ASO has three French teams in the World Tour already but will surely pick two more from Arkéa-Samsic, B&B Hotels, Delko and Total Direct Energie. Arkéa-Samsic are the must-have with Nairo Quintana, plus Warren Barguil and Nacer Bouhanni. So who gets the last wildcard? Delko haven’t been in the running and have since lost sponsors, riders and credibility over the winter after the team manager blew off Japanese sponsor Nippo. B&B were good value in last year’s Tour and have lost sponsor Vital Concept, to leave them out could put the team in jeopardy. Total Direct Energie won a stage in Paris-Nice last year but were dire in the Tour, only they’ve bolstered the roster significantly over the winter. It’s a difficult choice.
It’s harder still in Spain trying to pick between Burgos-BH, Caja Rural, Kern Pharma and Euskaltel-Euskadi because they’re evenly matched and leaving two out could also put their future in jeopardy. All this is predicated on the assumption that only local teams get invites, but this is itself a problem because if non-Italian/French/Spanish teams like, say, Gazprom, Rally or Uno-X want to bolster their roster with a big signing and make themselves a “must have” so they too can ride a grand tour… well they can’t right now as the local element weighs so heavily, it’d be risky spending €1 million to hire a potential stage winner with some star factor as it might not swing the balance.
It looks like one solution is to move to 23 teams and Italian website Tuttobici reports the teams plus RCS and ASO have now asked the UCI to grant an exemption. Now the teams would ask for this anyway but RCS and ASO changes things, they bring more weight to the table and despite what you might think this will surely cost them money in participation fees and accommodation costs. The governing body should listenas the situation is largely one of their making thanks to a rulebook that makes easier to break into the World Tour than it is to get bumped out. This is why we have 19 teams in the top level, plus the automatic invitation element amounts to a type of promotion, but there’s no reciprocal relegation.
But an exemption comes with costs. First there’s the principle, it devalues the rules if they’re waived, more so once the season’s started. But doing it for sensible reasons is better, more so if there’s an accompanying review into the situation. Second there’s a safety aspect given the major race organisers called for smaller team sizes not long ago on safety grounds (when actually it was probably as much if not more a mix of wanting to reduce the power of big teams to control the race, and cost-cutting for the hotel savings) and more riders means more crashes, but how much is debatable, adding 8 riders to a field of 176 riders is a 4.5% increase so a proportionate increase? But you could argue the big crashes come from fighting to be at the front and this happens anyway; or the other way that inviting riders who wouldn’t make the cut means more ragged riders prone to mistakes.
Lastly there’s the structural problem. By all means invite an extra team this year but there are two real issues to tackle to sort the problem properly, first is the rulebook which has created this situation that only leaves room for two local teams. Second is an oversupply of local teams: invite one extra for the Giro or Vuelta and you’ll still disappoint another. Even if the UCI reformed the system to have a World Tour of 18 teams, the weaker Pro Teams are still very much outsiders, they struggle to recruit young talent as these days the most promising riders are either hoovered by World Tour squads or dedicated development teams and there are only a handful of experienced riders on these smaller teams capable of winning World Tour races, although they can claim to give the likes of Wanty or Cofidis a run for their money.
Does any of this matter? More people are interested in the fates of teams like Ineos and Jumbo-Visma and once underway the Giro, Tour or Vuelta won’t feel any different to most if one home team is left out, none of the invited teams won a stage in a grand tour last year either. But they supply action and attacks when others sit tight and arguably the survival of some of cycling’s second tier teams is on the line here. There are already too many of them hoping for a wildcard on national grounds but this year a combination of circumstances has made things harder. So you can see why the rules might get waived once this year. The durable solution is for the UCI to revise the rulebook on behalf of the race organisers, and for the smaller teams to merge to confront their oversupply problem.