Tour de France wild-card picks: Surprises in store?

While America is asleep Wednesday morning, six French officials from the Société du Tour de France will be meeting in Paris for a couple of hours to select the final teams that will contest this year's Tour. By 11 a.m. local time, at the Maison du Nord-Pas de Calais in the 9th Arondissement, their director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, will address a news conference, announcing the four wild-card picks -- or will it be five? When Leblanc revealed the first 16 teams in January (see list below), he said that the number of starters at the 88th Tour de France would, as last year, be limited to 180 -- 20

By John Wilcockson

While America is asleep Wednesday morning, six French officials from the Société du Tour de France will be meeting in Paris for a couple of hours to select the final teams that will contest this year’s Tour. By 11 a.m. local time, at the Maison du Nord-Pas de Calais in the 9th Arondissement, their director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, will address a news conference, announcing the four wild-card picks — or will it be five?

When Leblanc revealed the first 16 teams in January (see list below), he said that the number of starters at the 88th Tour de France would, as last year, be limited to 180 — 20 teams of nine riders each. The reason for the limit is safety. The organizers were so concerned by the number of crashes at the 1997 Tour — contested by 22 teams, with 198 riders — that they cut the number to 21 teams in 1998 and ’99, and to 20 in 2000. However, with a dozen squads still in the hunt for the last four spots, it’s quite possible that Leblanc and his team will make their job a little easier by adding a fifth wild card.

Here’s a run-down on the candidates, with our top five picks:

1. Lotto-Adecco (B)Three months into the 2001 European season, Lotto has more UCI ranking points than any of the teams already selected for the Tour except Rabobank. A big part of the Belgian team’s success has been the breakthrough victories by Rik Verbrugghe at the Critérium International and Flèche Wallonne (both races organized by the Société). And timely reminders came at last Saturday’s Amstel Gold Race (a surprise third place by Serge Baguet) and Tuesday’s Henninger Türm semi-classic (third place for Kurt Van de Wouwer). Add to this that two stages of the Tour will finish in Belgium this year, and Lotto is a shoo-in.

2. CSC-World Online (Dk)Jean-Marie Leblanc has stated several times in the past week that he is in favor of CSC’s star rider Laurent Jalabert riding this year’s Tour. Well, Jalabert is the leading French rider by far (especially with Richard Virenque under suspension), and although the Société named six French teams among the first-round picks, four of them are led by non-French riders (see below). A further factor is that this Danish team is directed by former Tour winner Bjarne Riis, who was a big factor in helping Leblanc get through the drug-marred 1998 Tour. Without Jalabert (who injured vertebrae in a domestic accident two months ago), CSC has scored more UCI points than five teams already selected. The team’s place seems assured.

3. Mercatone Uno (I)By naming CSC and Jalabert, the organizers also have to include by the same criteria — a team dependent entirely on its star rider and his fitness — Mercatone Uno. Its leader, 1998 Tour winner Marco Pantani, is even more popular than the Frenchman, and he is ahead of Jalabert in his current form. At this time last year, Pantani was not even racing: He made his comeback at the Giro, and raced himself into enough form to win two of the Tour’s toughest stages — and receive the most publicity after winner Lance Armstrong. This year, Pantani has been racing through the spring, and despite some bronchial problems, he is showing improvements. Last week, he came in 12th, alongside two past Giro winners, at the one mountaintop finish of the Settimana Lombarda; and this week, in Tuesday’s second stage of the Tour of Trentino, he finished in the second group only 21 seconds behind race leader Francesco Casagrande — improving from a 51st place on the tough mountaintop finish the day before. With the Tour still two months away, Pantani will be ready. But given the tour’s stringent new drugs charter, will Leblanc risk choosing a rider involved in various doping suits?

4. Euskaltel-Euskadi (Sp)This Basque Country team was unfairly excluded from the 2000 Tour after some fine performances at the Dauphiné Libéré. This year, now a Division I squad, Euskaltel is lying 12th in the UCI team rankings, thanks to some excellent rides be newly recruited David Etxebarria (a double stage winner with ONCE in 1999) and its top time trialist, who also can climb, Alberto Martinez (runner-up in April’s Tour of the Basque Country). If the organizers are judging on merit, Euskaltel gets the nod along with Lotto.

5. Mercury-Viatel (USA)If the picks were made a month ago, the American squad would have been an automatic choice. It’s still in 11th place in the Division I rankings, but illness and injuries hampered Mercury-Viatel’s classics campaign. Its potential Tour standouts Pavel Tonkov and Niklas Axelsson should be enough to attract Leblanc’s interest. And that’s without considering the clout of team spokesman Greg LeMond and Mercury’s sponsorship link with OLN, the exclusive North American broadcaster for this year’s Tour. The nagging doubt is the financial viability of Viatel, a telecommunications corporation, that may have to declare bankruptcy if it cannot make two debt payments by May 15.

If the organizers decide against Mercury, the next teams in line for the final possible wild card are:

1. Saeco (I)Plus: Team icon Mario Cipollini is back to winning form. Minus: Cipo’ has never finished the Tour, and there are few stages in the opening week that suit his strengths.

2. Team Coast (G)Plus: Alex Zülle and Fernando Escartin both finished on the Tour podium in 1999. Minus: Both these stars have been anonymous in 2001.

3. La Française des Jeux (F)Plus: It’s a French team. Minus: Jacky Durand is its only top star.

4. BigMat-Auber 93 (F)Plus: It’s a French team. Minus: Reigning French champion Christophe Capelle is a sprinter, but has never won a Tour stage.

5. Liquigas-Pata (I)Plus: Davide Rebellin is the No. 4 rider in the UCI rankings. Minus: Rebellin has never ridden well at the Tour, even when he was on a French team.

6. Alexia (I)Plus: Pascal Hervé is one of the strongest climbers in France. Minus: The team is ranked 18th in … Division II!

7. Tacconi-Vini Caldirola (I)Plus: It’s ranked 13th in Division I. Minus: Its top rider is Gianluca Bortolami, a classics specialist.

The 16 teams already named (and their Tour leaders)AG2R (F): Jaan Kirsipuu (Est)iBanesto.com (Sp): José Maria Jimenez (Sp), Leonardo Piepoli (I)Bonjour (F): Didier Rous (F)Cofidis (F): David Millar (GB)Crédit Agricole (F): Bobby Julich (USA), Jonathan Vaughters (USA)Domo-Farm Frites (B): Axel Merckx (B), Romans Vainsteins (Lat)Fassa Bortolo (I): Raimondas Rumsas (Lit)Festina (F): Angel Casero (Sp)Jean Delatour (F): Laurent Brochard (F)Kelme-Costa Blanca (Sp): Oscar Sevilla (Sp)Lampre-Daikin (I): Oskar Camenzind (Swi)Mapei-Quick Step (I): Paolo Bettini (I)ONCE (Sp): Marcos Serrano (Sp)Rabobank (Nl): Michael Boogerd (Nl)Telekom (G): Jan Ullrich (G)U.S. Postal Service (USA): Lance Armstrong (USA)