WORDS: IAN CLEVERLY | PHOTOS: OFFSIDE/LEQUIPE
3 minute read
No Chris Froome at this year’s Tour, then. Not a massive surprise, to be honest. No Geraint Thomas either. A medium-sized shock, perhaps, registering a six on cycling’s Richter scale shock-ometer.
Instead, Team Ineos will lead the line with Egan Bernal, Richard Carapaz and Pavel Sivakov. Out with the old, in with the new. And out with the Brits, in with the international brigade.
Welshman Luke Rowe is the sole UK representative in the Ineos eight – the lowest ever home nation representation from the team since Team Sky’s Tour debut in 2010. Sky reached peak Brit-dom in 2015, with five on the line in Utrecht: Froome, Thomas, Kennaugh, Rowe and Stannard.
Then there’s the Australian-registered outfit, Mitchelton-Scott, with not a single Aussie picked for their 2020 line-up. Also NTT, ‘Africa’s Team’, field just one rider from the entire continent they claim to represent, which looks bad however you wish to interpret that tagline. No offence to Ryan Gibbons, but if a white South African is the face of Africa’s Team, then maybe they should stop using that angle and admit they are just a team, same as any other, and present their image accordingly.
Does any of this matter? Yes. And no.
A quote from Caleb Ewan from an upcoming Rouleur feature: “The first Tour I remember was 2003. The Aussies had a big presence – it was the year that Brad McGee was in yellow at the beginning and Baden Cooke and Robbie McEwen were battling for the green jersey. That really drew me in.”
Much as we like to think bike racing is a relatively non-nationalistic, un-jingoistic sport, representation has a massive bearing on interest in the Tour – especially for the millions of TV viewers worldwide for whom this race is their only cycling fix of the year.
Cycling in the UK would never have reached the levels of interest and participation in recent years without the exploits of Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish at the Tour de France.
Caleb Ewan might still be racing local track league had he not seen his fellow Aussies battling it out for the green jersey back in 2003. Kids in Colombia are, undoubtedly, riding like demons having watched Egan Bernal triumph last year.
And if you’ve not seen the reception Daniel Teklehaimanot received back home in Eritrea having worn the polka dot jersey for four days at the 2015 Tour, it’s an extraordinary sight. Thousands thronged the airport and streets of the capital to welcome their returning hero. Representation equals inspiration worldwide.
But does a team registered in a particular country have an obligation to favour its countrymen when selecting its final eight for the Tour? Of course not.
The French teams will be overwhelmingly selected from home riders, as their rosters are correspondingly overwhelmingly French (AG2R-La Mondiale, Arkea-Samsic, Cofidis, Groupama-FDJ, Total-Direct Energie, B&B Hotels), but they will not be unduly troubling the GC battle. (Please prove us wrong, Thibaut Pinot!)
Apart from that, the mostly-Spanish Movistar and fairly-Belgian Lotto Soudal are about it when it comes to some kind of national identity at the Tour. The remaining squads are a delightful mish-mash of nations. And perhaps that is as it should be.
But you have to wonder whether the casual viewer of the Tour – not you and me, my highly-knowledgeable cycling fan chums, but the countless millions who tune in on a yearly basis – might find the whole scenario less than enticing, and more confusing than ever.
It’s already hard enough to work out who to support in a bafflingly complex sport, especially with some of the less-than edifying sponsors backing teams in recent years. Take national identity out of the equation and professional cycling risks losing a chunk of its audience at a time when its very survival hangs in the balance.
In essence, Ineos is not a British team, any more than Mitchelton-Scott is Australian, or NTT African. Whether this is the correct long-term strategy remains to be seen. I rather suspect not.