Wildcard Dilemmas

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.

41 thoughts on “Wildcard Dilemmas”

    • That was supposed to be the plan a few years ago, that by 2020 we’d be down to 16. But the WT teams rejected this and so it stayed at 18.

      Maybe we could go to 16 with the protections in place today, eg if ejected a team gets automatic invite for the next year, the next year it could get this by winning the ProTeam rankings etc so relegation for 17+18th teams is gentle, but there’s a lot of moving parts to this, eg now there are 19 teams none will vote to go to 18.

      • the current rules do say 18, but with 1 or 2 possible extras for the 2020-2022 period. So the WT *should* go down to 18 after 2022.

        No doubt there will be further change to the rules by then.

        But even if there were 18 teams in the WT now, that wouldn’t really help matters because rule 2.1.007bis provides that the top 2 ProTeams should be invited in those circumstances. So there’d still only be 2 wildcards.

        • Amending the rules will be required to come up with a real solution.
          – allow 23 teams in a stage race so long as there are 18 or 19 WT teams
          – ban the transferring of WT licences and halt the promotion of new teams into WT until there are 16 WT teams (i.e. the next three WT teams to depart are not replaced)
          – 3rd PT merit invite introduced once there are 16 WT teams (22 team WT race would have 16 WT, 3 PT merit invites, 3 PT wildcard invites)
          – revitalise the PT division by using a draft system to allow the top 6 PT teams a share of the merit invites (so there’s something to race for even if #1 is out of reach) and ban WT teams from racing in multiple locations on the same day unless both races are of ProSeries or WorldTour rank.
          – introduce a rolling system of promotion/relegation where WT teams would have multi year licences (for greater stability) with maybe 6 licences awarded each year (4x three year licences to the top 4 WT teams up for renewal, 2x two year licences awarded to the two highest ranked of the #5 and #6 WT teams and the #1 and #2 PT teams)

      • Reducing the number of WT teams might certainly ease the invite problem, but it creates another. Most of these WT teams attract their sponsors based on the guarantee of being able to ride the TdF. I’d you reduce the number of teams and impose a relegation/promotion system, the teams which are on the bubble suddenly find it harder to find a sponsor. Whereas now a sponsor can buy the liscence of a defunct team and then build the team back based on the automatic invite.

        There are really no easy answers.

  1. As soon as a team disappear, everyone starts complaining that “cycling business model is broken”, that the teams are too weak and too poor, don’t have enough revenues, etc. But at the end we have too many teams which are credible applicants to participate to the grand tours… Some teams disappear, others come to life, as always in cycling. As Prudhomme said last year, it’s better to have this kind of problems than the other way around. Too bad this year for the small teams.
    For the Giro, the positive tests of two Bardiani riders two or three years ago didn’t have an influence on their invitation… Wild cards of the Giro are often hard to understand (officially, anyway).

    • The “broken business model” idea gets said a lot but it works ok, it’s probably working better than ever with the top teams having guaranteed invites which brings in sponsors and the teams and/or rider wage budgets soar or shrink to match demand, the average age of a team must be longer than ever and if the likes of Astana or Sunweb wobble, in come Premier Tech, DSM etc. Prior to the pandemic team budgets, rider wages and TV coverage were all at a high rather than down in the dumps, but the workings can always be improved.

  2. For the TdF, Arkea Samsic are an obvious choice as Mr IR states, subject to Quintana being cleared (has he been?), though even without him they have Bouhanni and Barguil. The last place must go to Total Direct Energie who, despite past disappointments, surely have more potential. Is there no future for B&B Hotels without the TdF? They could still win important races in France, where Europe Tour races can be highly visible, with Coquard, Gautier and Rolland? Think Paris-Troyes, Denain, Tro-bro Léon, Fourmies, Morbihan, Boucles de la Mayenne, Dunkerque…

    • Quintana’s case is still open, yes but almost because of that he’s probably not going to be bothered, at the risk of putting my Sidis in my mouth in an episode not seen since Basso served a shoe to Nibali in a TV ad… this has all the hallmarks of an investigation that’s gone nowhere and in 18 months’ time the case will be quietly closed. As for B&B, maybe but the sponsor surely values the Tour a lot, I wouldn’t bet on them staying although there could be behind the scenes talk that if not this year then next to entice them to stay, more of those races you list are on TV but not all and so one good day in the Tour is probably worth as much in publicity terms as them combined, possibly more.

      • Thinking, B&B group can’t currently be awash with money and many of the hotels look like staying closed for months to come. Supposedly the French investment fund who owns B&B was looking to sell too (have they already?). Maybe B&B do need the TdF and the TdF a 23rd team.

  3. Somewhat related to this topic: I thought the joining of forces between Intermarche and Wanty was interesting. Even though the team is not exactly stellar it’s been around for a while now which speaks for the determination and resolve in the team’s structure, as well as their behind-the-scenes networking prowess. Now with a French supermarket chain as sponsor I wouldn’t be surprised to see them fairly swiflty morph from no-hope breakaway fodder into a solid mid-tier team that can challenge the likes of Cofidis, AG2R, Lotto especially on Belgian and French soil. Also, three Belgian WT teams and not one Italian, how is that even possible?

    • Worth noting that Intermarché sponsoring Wanty is the Belgian franchise of Intermarché deciding to sponsor the team and not the company as a whole (an odd decision as you’d think it’d cost the company the same and they could benefit from the publicity and VIP events in France, Poland, Portugal as well).

      As for Italy, it is unusual as you have a perfect pyramid with all the history, culture, a big amateur calendar, multiple ProTeams but not the one big team on top of it all. Maybe a new Nibali would help, a big charismatic champion to build a project around but the economy is in a long slump and many doping scandals have put off the big corporate sponsors too.

  4. I’ve never seen the need for a ‘World Tour’. The races stand alone, and it’s not like anyone cares who wins any WT points competition or whatever. Just let each race invite the teams it wants.
    But failing that, there was no need to reduce the number of wildcard teams.

    • It gives teams a lot of stability, sponsors know they will get invited to the Tour, that Mauro Vegni won’t flick them because of a dispute the previous year etc. It’s almost a de facto franchise system where even if sponsorship dries up someone else buys the licence, eg Wanty buying CCC’s one, Israel buying Katusha (for $1).

  5. It’s surely unlikely Alpecin-Fenix will want to do all three grand tours. Clearly MvdP has pretty much said he feels obliged to ride the Tour for his sponsors but do they have the depth or desire to ride the Giro and/or the Vuelta. Seems unlikely which will probably open up an extra spot for an Italian/Spanish team there. Still an issue for the French pro-contis and the Tour mind.

    • You wonder but the team manager has said they want to do all three, having Jasper Philipsen gives them a second MvdP option at the Giro or Vuelta and Tim Merlier could conceivably do two or three and score results as well. Above all they’ve got 31 riders, a giant squad and more than anyone else so they could do all three and have other riders busy on other fronts too.

  6. Could they possible reduce the number of riders in smaller teams to allow more teams but maintain the overall numbers in the race.
    I am thinking 6 riders only for the non-WT teams. I know this might look like it increases the disparity between the haves and have nots, but it would still allow those teams to bring their best riders, and those teams aren’t likely to be riding for the GC so dont need the same number of domestiques.

  7. The problem here is fundamentally the UCIs baby the WT. Many WT teams don’t have a possible GT winner. The organizers should be returned their right, gained by years of effort required to attract sponsorship and to organize such major events, to accept which ever team they feel fit.

    That the UCI exerts its power without much responsibility is to be much regretted. One day this pointless and endless power struggle will end. To the benefit of the sport as a whole.

    • I’m not sure the UCI has much power though, it’s likely the race organisers ask and then get, and weere here because before the UCI wanted to get to 16 teams but the teams said no and kept strong provisions to mitigate relegation etc. Basically most rules only happen if the teams and the big race organisers want them, the UCI would really struggle to force a new rule on them if they didn’t like it.

    • This could more accurately be termed giving the organizers the ability to end any team they want whenever they want.
      For most of the WT teams not getting in the TDF is the end of the team except the the teams propped up by a rich guy.
      The same as for some of the smaller french teams which are expected to get in the tour every year.
      such as team unibet.
      Whether the WT is the right way or not. Without guaranteed entry to the biggest events most large sponsors won’t put up the same $.

      But really the problem with the WT is not the WT its the fact that no one organisation owns all the races.

  8. How about just reducing the team sizes to 7 riders? Win-win situation, as you would have better racing (=less abilities to control and “seal” a race with less riders per team) and could allow more teams while keeping the overall number of athletes (and staff..) constant. Would also be good for teams as more would get Grand Tour exposure and could attract sponsors.

    • It could work but one result of the move from nine riders to eight is perverse as the strong teams can actually have an advantage because they can pay top dollar for the handful of riders who can climb, pull in a TTT and tow across the plains, think van Aert or Kwiatkowski and how they’re each worth 2-3 riders. To exaggerate to make the point, let’s imagine if teams went down to four riders, Ineos and Jumbo would be even stronger relative to the other teams, no?

      • But no matter how strong your riders are, you need a certain number of them to be able to control a grand tour day in, day out. I’m not sure if 7 is a low enough number, but it’s worth a try – even if it’s only at the TdF as that is such an utterly controlled race these days. I’d happily see the TdF go down to 6.

    • The other point to make is that you’re actually reducing the overall quality of the peloton when you reduce the team size to make space for extra teams.

      For example, an 8th Ineos, QS, or UAE rider is likely to be a much more capable rider than just about anyone that B&B or Androni will field. Even if you say that Coquard or whomever would be decent, you’re still bring 6 others at the cost of a WT rider. When it comes down to it the 8th EF1 rider is surely better than most of the pro tour.

      • Another perverse result of the reduced team size seems to be that decent-but-not-remco types of young riders are struggling to get a contract after their first two//three/four years.

      • The hope would be that if you had smaller teams for all races the good riders would then become more widely spread between teams rather than a small number of teams hogging so many good riders. But money talks, so you’d probably need some sort of budget cap for that to work.

  9. It’s an interesting topic this one. I agree, part of the ‘problem’ has been caused by the rulebook. I think more the fault in this respect is the growth in the number of WT teams, rather than the ProTeam qualification aspect. I think the latter is actually a good idea and brings some meritocracy to the process, similar to winners of the Ciclismo Cup getting invited to the Giro (not sure if RCS still do that now though). The suggestion in the comments to reduce the team size down to allow more teams but achieve no net change in peleton size is one that occurred to me too. Although would a counter argument be that teams would need smaller rosters and this could be bad for the job market? Is that balanced by more teams getting GT invites? I think the safety arguments are often a convenient argument/position that gets used (it’s the same with race radios in that respect) and is often about maintaining a situation that is beneficial to influential parties. No ‘answers’ in all this though!

  10. It’s surely not beyond the wit of the UCI, race organisers and teams to come up with something approaching a compromise that offers some benefit to the sport as a whole?
    Perhaps a wild card team made up of 8 x separate invitee riders that represent the Pro teams that would have otherwise have missed out?
    A sort of Harlem Globetrotters of Pro Team riders?
    After all, the rule book and the races (especially the Tour de France) have a history of fluidity in this regard?

  11. It’d potentially be more interesting if wildcard invites went to the dedicated development teams you mentioned. Though in the case of Bardiani and Androni in Italy that’s more or less what they are. It would certainly be nicer to see some up and coming talent in the Tour rather than Pierre Rolland rolling off the front in slow motion for the umpteenth time whenever the road tips uphill.

  12. Too many pro riders, too few important races. Where are Midi Libre, Züri-Metzgete, Baracchi, Bordeaux-Paris, Vuelta a los Puertos, Critérium International, Setmana Catalana, GP des Nations, Subida a Montjuïc, and many others?

  13. If having less riders in GTs might cause a power balance problem that is rich teams having a edge.
    I have a solution! All teams which podiumed in the previous years GT edition have to carry 5 kilos as a handicap ( just like horse racing). The handicap can be distributed to one rider or more and can be varied each stage. Walla problem solved?

  14. Nobody has commented yet on the big elephant in the room ie. why should shit teams get a lifeline year-in-year-out to ride their home Grand Tour? Especially when they shamelessly and barefacedly proceed to take the piss year-in-year-out and not only continue to be shit with absolutely no attempt whatsoever to get any better or more professional but openly dope themselves up time and time again, get caught, cry crocodile tears and then whinge about not getting invites to their home Grand Tour.

    Fuck them. Fuck them twice over. Vini Zabu, Bardiani, Burgos, Caja Rural? Fuck them.

    Get more professional; get better riders; get better staff; be a decent team; or fuck off out of it. The world has moved on; cycling is better for having the likes of Cofidis, Wanty, Alpecin, Qhubeka, Total, B’n’B, Bora, Sunweb at least trying to do things in a more sensible, less entitled, less childish, way. And – hey, what a surprise – they often succeed at it too.

    • Partly because there’s not much of an alternative. Leave, say, Bardiani-CSF out and who do you invite instead? Bingoal-Wallonie or Rally are not exactly waiting in the wings. Plus national tours need home teams, the local media needs local teams so especially for the Vuelta with only one WT team and more so for Italy with none they need home team or two. Also the likes of Bardiani and Caja Rural have brought on some good riders, Caja Rural’s been a feeder team for Movistar and Astana, think of Fraile, Schulz, Prades, Aranburu, Bilbao, Babero, Carthy and that’s just a few.

      • The problem with the ProTeam division is that there’s too damn little to race for.

        If you can’t be #1 (to get the compulsory invitation) and you aren’t best buddies with one of the big races and there aren’t any WT licences up for sale, there’s no incentive to invest and do a good job of running your team.

        Slimming down to 16 WT teams and adding more merit-based invitations that would be spread among the top 5-6 ProTeams would be better than the current situation.

  15. merging is an interesting thought. Not so much a merger but how about an “all-star” pro-conti team. the best pro-conti riders from team(s) that didn’t get a wild card.

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