Last week’s column considered the Tour de France wildcard selections, all of them French, and concluded they were all there on merit.
Had Cofidis not made the step to GrandTour status, obviously we could have thrown some mud in their direction, the team’s last Tour stage win coming in 1976 [It was actually 2008, stop exaggerating – Ed] but there were no arguments regarding Total Direct Energie, B&B Hotels-Vital Concept or Arkea Samsic.
In fact, due to the UCI’s new ruling for 2020 that the top-ranked pro continental team would gain automatic admission to the Tour, Christian Prudhomme and his cohorts actually only had two invites to issue. Direct Energie topped the table. Had it not been a French squad, he’d have been spitting feathers, manning the barricades and calling for someone’s head to roll in Aigle, no doubt.
The same ruling applied to the Giro d’Italia too, but both Direct Energie and second-ranked pro conti team Circus-Wanty Gobert turned down the chance to race, citing limited team rosters and stretched resources. A much-relieved Mauro Vegni was therefore able to offer three spots to the usual Italian suspects – a happy outcome all round.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Total Direct Energie boss Jean-René Bernaudeau, for whom the expression ‘old school’ was coined, told L’Equipe that, despite gaining access to WorldTour races this season via the new rules and by dint of his riders’ results, he was no fan of the system.
“I had banned the words ‘top 10’ and ‘UCI points’ from my dictionary, because the race became a game of numbers and boring,” said Bernaudeau, “but I had to use them again now.”
Despite his misgivings, Jean-René will be aiming for that top spot again this year, scooping up points at Coupe de France races, not because he lacks ambition, but because them’s the rules. Why slog round Italy for three weeks for no gain when you are better rewarded by finishing fifth at Tro-Bro Léon just up the road?
There seems to be a twisted dynamic here. Placings count. Points equal success. Winning is not everything after all.
A similar qualifying system operates in the UK too, where domestic teams race from April to August garnering points to secure a slot at the Tour of Britain – far and away their biggest race of the season.
Recently-retired Adam Blythe, who has won some races in his time, is far from retiring on the subject on our latest podcast: “British racing is knackered. You don’t have racing anymore, you have teams working to get people in the top ten. That’s not bike racing.”
Indeed. If your squad does not take to the start line with the express goal of getting one rider across the line with their arms in the air, then that is a sad state of affairs. Nobody remembers who finished eighth – nobody except the UCI stats bods, anyway.
Race organisers should be free to issue wildcard invites to whoever they see fit, for whatever reason. Got a world-class star in your line-up who could set the race alight? (We’re looking at you, Mathieu and Alpecin-Fenix). Get them in! Or a history of discovering unpolished gems who turn out to be diamonds? (Gianni Savio at Androni with Egan Bernal springs to mind). A shoo-in! They shouldn’t have to rely on others turning down the Giro. They are the Giro.
Now we have the Colorado Classic, the biggest women’s stage race in the US, announcing that the top-ranked domestic team come June will be given a slot in the four-day tour.
Placings is the name of the game. Points on the board. Will it change the way the American women race? Probably.
Is it a good thing? Absolutely not.