More Energies

When the wildcard invitations for the Tour de France were announced the only surprise was the timing, who predicted 11.04am on 18 January? We knew already Lotto-Dstny and Israel-Premiertech qualified automatically. The elective picks went to Uno-X and TotalEnergies, same as last year. No surprise but for these two teams, especially the latter, invitations could be hard to come by next time.

Total Energies goes back to 2000 when Jean-René Bernaudeau took his successful U-23 team and built a pro team. They’ve ridden the Tour de France every year. It started as Bonjour, backed by a classifieds newspaper about to get eaten by the internet. It went to Brioches Boulangères, Bouygues Telecom, Europcar (pictured) and Direct Energie. Total Energies was accidental because Direct Energie was an electricity supplier that got bought by French oil major Total: it bought the company and found it had a cycling team. This partly explains why the cycling team today might be sponsored by one of the biggest companies in the world – among quoted companies it is the 85th biggest by market value at the time of typing – yet it has a second division team.

So far, so good. A team that’s been on the road for a quarter of a century, backed by a stable company but this is where the troubles come because the past doesn’t guarantee the future. This year it scraped into the Tour de France with one of the last two places.

For 2024 Total Energies merited an invitation. They had two second places during the Tour’s stages last year and even if they’ve lost their star Peter Sagan, he wasn’t delivering any results. We can also look at the other teams in the second tier and none of them scream “pick me” or “essential”. But this is where the problems come because the likes of Tudor and Q36.5 are on the up. Tudor’s got itself a wildcard for the Giro d’Italia and yes the brand has started sponsoring the race but it has a credible team for a grand tour with the likes of Matteo Trentin, Michael Storer, Alberto Dainese and more. One or two more signings and they’ll have an ironclad case for a Tour invite.

Also there’s a rule coming where in 2025 invites can only go to those ranked among the top-40 teams on the UCI World ranking, and by 2026 this shrinks to the top-30. Total ought to be OK but right now they’re ranked 80th and have just 11 points but of course it is only February and given their riders and race programme they’ll climb up the rankings but still… eleven points combined. So there’s already some jeopardy this season and even more so the next.

If all this is based on moving parts with the likes of Tudor on the rise, we must think several moves ahead as there could be fallers. We’re in the second year of the three year World Tour promotion/relegation cycle where two of the current top-18 teams could drop out, right now this could be Arkéa and Astana but we’re 35% of the way there. A relegated team might find the second tier more accommodating but equally the sponsors could walk. It’s not something the team and its backers should rely on.

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The solution for Total Energies is to beef up their recruitment, to make them a must-have team for July. Which is where Julian Alaphilippe comes in. The team was already looking closely at signing him in the wake of the failed Jumbo-Soudal team merger where the Frenchman could have been left out and free to sign elsewhere. Interestingly the talk about signing Alaphilippe wasn’t unsourced gossip but came from none other than Patrick Pouyanné (pictured), the chairman and CEO of Total Energies speaking about his sponsorship of sport to L’Equipe (my translation):

I needed sports that are close to people. I was told about the Tour de France. Then we bought Direct Energie and so picked up a team. During a stage in the Pyrenees I met Jean-René Bernaudeau. I only asked one thing: “no scandal. Otherwise the next day you’ll lose your sponsor”. I was also really impressed, following the strategy, by the amount of people with our jerseys*. After all, a company that leads in France, and one of the biggest in the world as well, can it allow itself not to win while it’s winning in business? I said one day to Jean-René “if you could get Alaphilippe, a French guy, nice guy, who is well-known and has positive images? I’d be prepared to raid the piggy bank”.

* the team hands out imitation jerseys from the publicity caravan to spectators ahead of the race

Alaphilippe isn’t a done deal. The team probably looked about buying him out of his current Soudal contract but they’d have to match his lucrative contract otherwise why would he move? Only Alaphilippe these days isn’t as valuable a prospect, he might still be a talent. Still he could sign on the right terms and this might swing things for them in terms of an invitation but they might need another signing, or at least to see their Mathieu Burgaudeau land a big result and hope Pierre Latour can get over his descending phobia. Alaphilippe though is far from certain to sign, other teams will be interested. Indeed it might not be a match… but if Tudor wanted to ride the Tour then Alaphilippe could be of interest too.

Total Energies make for a curious team, one of the biggest corporate sponsors going with a vast global marketing budget that could fund a top-tier cycling team out of loose change, yet it’s content with a small but friendly team that just qualifies for the Tour de France. They’re still an obvious pick for one of the two wildcards for this year’s Tour de France. But this isn’t guaranteed, regulatory change with the obligation to pick among the top-30 teams soon makes things harder and rival teams positioning to make themselves the obvious choice for an invite make things harder. Alaphilippe’s imminent availability is of interest but they’ll have to raid the piggybank soon or risk the 25 year story stopping.

There’s a similar story with Uno-X but they’re a step ahead. They’ve signed with Magnus Cort, Andreas Leknessund, Alexander Kristoff but now have to convert this into results in case as rival teams have ambitions to overtake them.

17 thoughts on “More Energies”

  1. There was a very interesting interview of Bernaudeau on Directvelo recently ( ) . He really seems to focus on education and formation, mostly speaks about juniors and even cadets, converting his amateur team in a conti… Not so much about the pro team, he doesn’t seem to worry, speaks a lot about values. I guess Total would put more money if a Tour participation was in the balance…

  2. Isn’t a bigger issue just how disappointing French teams have been all around. The best French riders only become so if they are on non-French teams – Alaphilipe and Laporte. And then when stars come from elsewhere to French teams they get worse (O’Connor may be a success story though). It can’t be all about budgets and taxes. I thought Madiot made a bit of a fool of himself on the Netflix show – the team seemed less than professional. Now with the Pinot and Bardet generation ending with not much to show, what’s the future? I think for this sport to thrive it needs strong French teams but we haven’t seen it for decades and I’m not sure that’s going to change any time soon. What can be done?

  3. I only asked one thing: “no scandal. Otherwise the next day you’ll lose your sponsor”
    Remains pro cycling’s Achilles Heel. All the ranting about “cycling’s broken business model” is just that until they can manage this. What the solution is I don’t know, but how many potential sponsors bailed-out on ever thinking about spending advertising money after the BigTex fiasco? I single that one out because it was both the biggest fraud (as someone once said) and the corruption reached to the very top of the sport.

    • Back in the 90’s there was an interesting race in
      NSW (Ausralia) that was lifting the profile of the sport … the Commonwealth Bank Classic. It was centred on Sydney and travelled to locations up and down the coast. It ran from 1992 to 2000 when the sponsor pulled the plug in the wake of the Festina affair. Cycling was more or less on the nose here because of that and I would surmise that it has only recovered due to the efforts of Cadell Evans.

    • The funny thing is that the teams’ leverage to go on doping their athletes even when institutions ask for a downshifting of such practices is… that the scandals will break the sport.

      That’s why in recent cycling institutional antidoping policies (when it’s not… the police, I mean!) you get a slideshow of minor athletes caught, or in extreme cases big athletes caught for minor issues. Not a bad strategy, although one has to feel sorry for “the messenger” who gets shot by a positive test or the likes.

      But if the teams (or the big athlete) refuse to comply all the same, well, that’s where problems start again. And that’s more or less where we probably are now.

  4. In sporting terms, I expect signing Alaphilippe will produce similar results as signing Sagan.
    Once a rider is no longer as good as they once were, they rarely regain their previous form.
    It’ll get them an invite to the TdF, but who cares – other than their sponsors – if they under-perform?

  5. The classic underachieving French team; they’re virtually assured of a Tour spot, so don’t have to do much to make the next step to becoming a top team.
    Do they know it’s 2024, and not 1994? So many of the French teams are in a time warp……

    If I’m Total, I’d be wanting to know what I’m getting for the investment – TV time ain’t cutting it in 2024, I want results.

    • “TV time ain’t cutting it in 2024, I want results.”

      I make a habit at looking at potential startlists for races (made so much easier in the age of PCS and FirstCycling) and trying to work out who wants what out of a race in each team. There just isn’t the canon fodder there once was. Every team in a major race can have a legitimate claim on a proper objective. Often more than one. This is great for the fans but as INRNG points out, if Tudor or Uno X are coming with hitters ready to race for wins, why* invite a local team just to pad out a break for a while?

      *I know there’ll be political and commercial reasons, but they have to balance with sporting side.

      • There have been some GT stages recently where nobody wanted to take up a futile days long break. When there’s only two local wild card teams or less with little ambition other than tv time, you’re going to get stages where absolutely nothing happens until the sprint.

          • Great points. And perhaps this feeds into the reduction in traditional sprint stages in grand tours. We as likely to see a finish that could be contested by Alaphillipe Vs Van Aert as we are Van Aert Vs Cavendish. Perhaps my protagonist references are a couple of seasons out of date but I hope you see what I mean. Where this is sprint, it may well have have other challenge to complicate matters for the pure sprinters.

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