Though it has its imperfections, the World Tour has served a laudable goal - ensuring the best teams show up at the biggest races. Race organizers, particularly the ASO - organizer of Paris Nice, Paris Roubaix, the Tour de France, among other historic races - were hostile to the concept, wanting to reserve the right to invite teams they believed would put on the best show at races. And who can blame them, for do we really need Euskatel to ride Paris Roubaix or Lampre to ride the Vuelta a España?
Now, concerns of race organizers are only multiplied as World Tour races are required to invite not 18 but 19 teams. Rather than make alterations to the World Tour format, allowing teams to decline obligatory participation in a few races throughout the year as Chris ruminated on, the UCI appears to be holding its ground and trying to fit the 19 team peg into a mis-matched 18 team sized hole.
A number of races, particularly those occurring in the period between now and the Giro d'Italia in May, have already announced their remaining wildcard team selections. Do organizers invite more teams and deal with the extra hassle and risks it entails, or do they un-invite a wild card? Today we are beginning to get some answers. According to the French web site VeloChrono, the ASO has announced Paris-Nice and the Criterium du Dauphiné will have 23 teams invited rather than the standard 22 as their wildcards have already been announced and the ASO is loathe to rescind an offer extended to a team, particularly French ones such as Cofidis, Europcar, Sojasun, and Bretagne-Séché. No word has been heard from RCS Sport, organizer of the Giro d'Italia, yet. Katusha was excluded from wildcard invitations for the Giro but was compensated in part by receiving invites to race at Tirreno - Adriatico and other RCS events. Because Tirreno is a World Tour race as well, the effect is to have only three "wildcards" at the race now versus four, even if the teams competing stay the same.
Adding teams may not be as simple as it seems, though. The UCI has a maximum allowed field size of 200 riders and increasing the number of teams to 23 brushes against this proscription in grand tours. For Paris-Nice and the Daupiné, teams are allowed (and required to fill) 8 rider slots apiece, totaling 184 riders for the now expanded team lists. The Giro d'Italia faces more difficulties now. If it does not rescind a wildcard invitation, it will have to either gain an exemption from the UCI to have 207 riders start the race or reduce team size down to eight riders. I would expect one of the latter two solutions rather un-inviting a team, though I shudder at the thought of 207 riders barreling through tight city centers in Italy. On a related note, it will be interesting to see how the ASO tackles the issue of wildcard invitations for the Tour de France in the upcoming months - will it follow whatever RCS Sport does with the giro by having 23 teams and adapting the race details to fit more riders or smaller teams, or will it begrudgingly extend one less invitation? If you thought the relationship between ASO and the UCI was slowly getting warmer, this will be a substantial hiccup to that progress.
It is worth remembering, though, that the problem is limited to World Tour races. Races like the Omloomp Het Niuewsblad this weekend and Strade Bianche on March 2 are unaffected, regardless of whether they have invited Katusha or not. For a list of races whose organization will be scrambling to figure out how to deal with this new reality, you can peruse the UCI World Tour calendar here.