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Could 2012 Tour de France wildcard teams number more than four?

March 28, 2012

 

Ascending the Col de Peyresourde, 2008 Tour de France (photo by Mary Topping)

Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, said the race organization aspired in 2011 to reinvigorate French presence and success in the TDF. Afterall, France last enjoyed first place in the Tour with Bernard Hinault in 1985.

Prudhomme succeeded. Thomas Voeckler finished fourth overall and wore the yellow jersey for ten days, reinforcing the hero status he earned based on his 2004 TDF performance when he embraced the yellow jersey for ten days as well before losing it to Lance Armstrong. The four wildcard teams invited in 2011 were Voeckler’s Europcar, Cofidis, FDJ, and Saur-Sojasun.

Prudhomme called filling the wildcard slots with French teams a one-time event, not necessarily to be repeated for 2012. Now the cycling world awaits the Amaury Sports Organization’s (A.S.O.) announcement of the four wildcard teams to participate in the 2012 Tour. The announcement is expected soon, and many are speculating on the potential outcome.

Assuming a total team count of 22 for the Tour, the A.S.O. only selects four wildcard teams. All 18 World Tour teams receive automatic invites based up the agreement Prudhomme and other Grand Tour organizers struck with the UCI in December, 2010. In that agreement, all World Tour teams obtain automatic entry to all World Tour events. The 18 World Tour teams are Ag2r, Astana, BMC, Euskaltel-Euskadi, FDJ-Big Mat, Garmin-Barracuda, GreenEDGE, Katusha, Lampre-ISD, Liquigas-Cannondale, Lotto Belisol, Movistar, Omega Pharma-QuickStep, Rabobank, Radioshack-Nissan, Sky, Saxo Bank and Vacansoleil-DCM.

The wildcard selection process seems to lie entirely within the A.S.O.’s discretion. In the past many assumed the criteria included a team’s success in early season races and ability to contribute excitement to the race. The 2011 selection demonstrated a slightly different, though not mutually exclusive, focus.

After the A.S.O. named the 2011 wildcard teams, John Wilcockson postulated an opinion shared by others regarding the wildcard selection process. He wrote that when the A.S.O. selects wildcard teams for the TDF, it shuts out teams whose riders or directors had previously brought embarrassment upon the Tour, namely by positive doping findings during the race.

In 2006 when Operation Puerto unfolded as the Tour was about to get underway, a number of implicated riders pulled out of the race the day before it started, including Ullrich, Basso, and Mancebo among others. So many Astana riders were involved the team withdrew from the race because it couldn’t meet the required minimum six riders.

Today cycling news outlets reported that judges overseeing the Mantova doping investigation may indict up to 32 riders and staff in the next few months; Damiano Cunego and several Lampre-ISD staff appear on the list of 32 which includes riders and staff on several teams.

Protecting the Tour from any association with doping, whether alleged or settled by a ruling body, appears to take top priority for the A.S.O. Is it possible the UCI will permit the A.S.O. to bend the rules in 2012, and disinvite Lampre-ISD on the basis of multiple pending or delivered Mantova indictments, or even Saxo Bank because Contador tested positive at last year’s Tour and was subsequently suspended?

While the latter seems less likely as the alleged doping violation by Contador was announced after the Tour unlike the 2008 Ricco scandal that colored the Tour for days, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine the World Tour team invites could dwindle to fewer than eighteen on account of older, ongoing, or yet to emerge events, thus opening the door to more than four teams for a wildcard slot in 2012.

Such an outcome would permit four French teams to collect invites (Cofidis, Bretagne-Schuller, Saur-Sojasun, and Europcar) as well as an offer or offers to non-French teams who dream of their golden chances.

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