So, in case you hadn’t checked Twitter in the last couple of hours, it was ASO’s wildcard-unveiling day, usually let pass with a sigh, a well-placed “obviously” or two and the annual reminder of Cofidis’ most recent Tour de France stage win (Sylvain Chavanel on 2008’s stage nineteen, if by some miracle you’ve avoided that fact). Today, however, it attracted a tiny bit more comment, due to the widely expected but still slightly jarring omission of a weak French team containing one marquee star who may have been expecting an invitation.
Not narrowed down enough for you? Of course it isn’t, that’s a sentence that literally describes the majority of wildcards. Alright, fine. ASO, in their infinite wisdom, decided to invite the following teams:
Cofidis, Solutions Credits
Notably missing from this list is the new set-up of Vital Concept, as well as the outsider Aqua Blue Sport, not that they were ever really any more in the running than your local cycling club, or Vini Fantini. No, it’s Vital Concept’s disinclusion which is the talking point, due entirely to the fact that it will mean their marquee rider Bryan Coquard will miss out for the second consecutive year. And while I could report the facts of this and basically let this be a free press release, I’m choosing not to. Here’s my (blissfully unasked-for) opinion on this.
I’m not going to say that Cofidis, Vital Concept or any other team are in some way unfit to ride the Tour. They’re not. It’s a bike race, over the years they’ve let all sorts in. What I am saying is that another decision could have easily been made. Tempting as it may be to say that this all could have been sorted out had Coquard just sucked it up and signed his Direct Energie contract last year (which it would have been, but that’s neither here nor there), the fact is that there are five teams, on roughly equal footings in terms of ability, and no real way to separate them.
Even divining the correct criteria by which to judge them is difficult. Direct Energie won a stage last year — how much more valuable is that than Wanty’s effort, which involved, through Guillaume Martin, a third place on that same stage, in addition to being a vibrant presence throughout the race. Remember Guillaume Van Keirsbulck’s solo breakaway on stage four? That’s got to be worth something. Then you have Fortuneo. I’d be willing to bet that after four years of never reaching a higher stage finish than fifth, they were about to be out on their collective skouarn. However, they managed to nab reigning King of the Mountains Warren Barguil, copper-fastening their invitation for another year. Their star has recent Tour form, which cannot be said for Cofidis.
Nacer Bouhanni has never quite managed to win a Tour stage, mainly due to the fact that he has troubles with making it past the first week, be it due to crashes or other random rushes of blood to the head. Nor, as stated above, has any Cofidis rider in the last nine Tours. It is Cofidis’ inclusion, therefore, that may grate most to Coquard, someone who has on three occasions bettered Bouhanni’s best result. Are they just a fixture in the Tour now? Like, whatever you type in the fourth wildcard’s space automatically autocorrects to “Cofidis, Solutions Credits?”
That’s not to say they’re less worthy — truly I can’t really choose between them. But I have a solution. Why choose? Only eight riders are to ride per squad, so inviting another team or two would surely cause no extra problems, bar the need to free up another few parking spaces outside a Hotel Campanile. In fact, this is what I assumed they would do when they announced the cut in team size. Last year’s Tour was ridden by one hundred and ninety-eight riders. Even if Vital Concept and Aqua Blue were invited, only one hundred and ninety-two would turn up in the Vendée, not that I even think reducing the size of the peloton would necessarily have a huge impact on crashes. That would have turned the reduction in team size into a chance to give more riders the ability to ride the Tour instead of fewer. It wouldn’t reduce the quality of the field by any means, and as far as I can tell from a quick parsing of the rule book, there’s no law against it. Where, I ask, are the disadvantages?