Ordinarily getting a wildcard invitation for the Tour de France should be something to celebrate for the B&B Hotels team but the news this week points to a real problem for the team. Their invitation to the Tour is debatable today, and their problem is that with time there will be less argument as Uno-X overhaul them.
B&B got picked for the Tour because they were French. If the team rode under a Belgian or German flag and had a lot of Belgians or Germans it probably wouldn’t get a wildcard, no more than, say, Bingoals-Pauwels Sauces or Human Powered Health. There’s a degree of préférence nationale here but it’s rational, the roadside audience is largely French and people want to see their locals in action so everything else being equal among all the second tier teams they qualify. Yet with Groupama-FDJ, Ag2r Citroën, Cofidis, Arkéa-Samsic and Total Energies already starting beaucoup bases are covered. There are more teams from France than any other country, adding a sixth has to have diminishing returns. Even within France, B&B market their Breton identity… but this is also something cherished by Arkéa-Samsic.
The B&B team has plenty to like. It’s actually a cycling club, you can join and wear the jersey too, neither unique nor original but still worthy and inclusive. It’s got its own VIP truck as well which attends many races making B&B pretty good at B2B. The sea green jerseys, le glaz, is part of the team’s identity so if the sponsors change, the jersey can always spotted, plus the kit is made locally. For a small budget there are some interesting signings and stories to tell, MTB rider Victor Koretzky is one to watch. Luca Mozzato’s a handy sprinter on the up. 19 year old Raphael Parisella’s got a big engine, the same for German TT specialist Miguel Heidemann. Signing longshots who could improve in the coming years is one thing, a noble vocation even and also a practical Moneyball approach for a team with a small budget. So far, so great but being nice won’t guarantee you a start in the Tour de France.
Uno-X have overtaken B&B on the rankings and likely to pull ahead when you compare their rosters. It’s here the problems begin to stack up. There’s the whole relegation/promotion battle going on and the short version of this is that barring a miracle, B&B won’t finish the season as one of the best two UCI Pro Teams and with this, qualify for the Tour de France next year (especially because any relegated World Tour teams count for a Pro Team when the numbers are added). Which means there are likely to be two wildcards left for the 2023 Tour de France and Total Energies with Peter Sagan and Pierre Latour is presumably in pole position already, leaving one place.
How to get the golden ticket? B&B could try and sign a superstar but they don’t have much budget, it’s actually shrunk since Vital Concept left after 2020; plus even if they could waive wedges of Euros at a rider, would they sign knowing the team’s race programme in July might be the Tour of Austria or Quinghai Lake? Possibly an older rider on a big “sunset” contract might say yes, but not for someone in peak years. Would a second sponsor come on board knowing the team’s qualification for the Tour is at risk? It’s a Catch-22 scenario. Also B&B will face competition from Uno-X for the remaining place, but also from Euskaltel-Euskadi because of the Basque grand départ next year and having a local team and a second Spanish team might appeal to ASO, especially as E-E can flood the early breakaway as well as B&B. And if B&B are not selected, their sponsors are going to fret, then recruiting and investing for the longer term gets harder, a negative circle.
The way to break this spiral is for the team to win and score big, to make themselves the logical choice ahead of Uno-X and Euskaltel-Euskadi. Easy to type, hard to do and it’s not been for the want of trying, the team’s now in its fifth season and hasn’t won a World Tour race yet so landing a Tour stage is a terrifying ask.
All this applies to B&B, but the same holds for teams in Italy and Spain alike whose existence is similarly predicated on riding their home grand tour for sponsor exposure. In the coming days – because the announcement is overdue with the Giro just 12 weeks away – Drone Hopper-Androni or Bardiani-CSF risk being disappointed by RCS, although if this depends on whether Arkéa-Samsic opt to ride. If not this year then next and beyond it’s a recurring, in-built problem. Likewise in Spain for the Vuelta where Burgos-BH, Caja Rural, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Kern Pharma four teams playing musical chairs in a game with two or three seats.
B&B win the wildcard but aren’t a must-have pick, and Uno-X keep racking up the wins in style. Quantitatively we can rank the teams too and B&B have been overtaken by Uno-X. If this continues then B&B are in real trouble because if they’re no longer selected for the Tour the sponsors may not hang around. So they can celebrate the invite this week but the worries are adding up. The same applies to other Pro Teams in Italy and Spain.
In the end the sport is moving towards a hierarchical system for qualification to grand tours, almost a franchise system with teams, as long as they can sustain sponsorship, locked into grand tour participation, which in turn helps secure sponsorship. As Uno-X might show it could be possible to crack this but it’ll require a long term project.