By John Wilcockson
In selecting two more French teams and excluding Mercatone Uno and Mercury-Viatel, Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc has devalued this year’s 88th Tour. Wednesday morning in Paris, Leblanc announced five wild-card selections — not four as originally scheduled — to create a field of 21, nine-man teams that will contest the race, July 7-29. The “new” teams are BigMat-Auber 93 and La Française des Jeux of France; CSC-World Online of Denmark; Euskaltel-Euskadi of Spain; and Lotto-Adecco of Belgium.
“To invite 21 teams is a circumstantial measure,” said Leblanc, in explaining that French cycling needed a boost in the present situation. That situation is such that for a French team to be excluded from the Tour almost certainly means the end of the team — that was indeed the situation with La Française des Jeux, sponsored by a national lottery that needs exposure to France’s biggest sporting event to justify its investment. And so Leblanc and the five other Frenchmen from the Société du Tour on his selection committee added two Division II squads, La Française des Jeux and BigMat, to the six French teams already named among the first first-round picks in January.
The inclusion of a seventh and eighth “home” team means that Leblanc has closed his eyes to the Tour’s worldwide audience. There is no more popular racer than Italian climber Marco Pantani, and yet he and his Mercatone Uno squad have been excluded. Less surprising was the exclusion of his compatriot Mario Cipollini and his Saeco team, and Alex Zülle and Fernando Escartin of team Coast. But for American cycling, Leblanc’s shunning of Mercury-Viatel is a decision that threatens the future of the first-year Division I squad.
When asked his reactions to the decision, Mercury-Viatel’s French directeur sportif Alain Gallopin told AFP: “It’s bad news that I was half-expecting. The only possibility [of gaining selection] would have been to win one or two classics, to pull off some performances like Lotto. That said, the Société du Tour was obliged sports-wise and politically to take the two French teams that are at the same level [as the other six French teams]. I find this a good thing for French cycling, even if that doesn’t help the interests of Alain Gallopin. My team will keep on its path, we’ll see the results in May and June. This is our first year at the sport’s highest level. It takes time to make your presence felt, [you need] to be patient. But, for the team, this will cause problems, that’s certain….”
Indeed, exclusion from the Tour along with the possible bankruptcy of Viatel this month, will create huge problems for Mercury team director John Wordin and team spokesman Greg LeMond. Clearly, Tour boss Leblanc would rather deal with domestic problems than include an exciting overseas team like Mercury, which boasts potential stage winners like Leon Van Bon, Gord Fraser and Peter Van Petegem, and top-10 contenders like Pavel Tonkov, Niklas Axelsson and Chann McRae.
Even more shocking is the exclusion of Pantani’s Mercatone Uno squad, which Leblanc explained with these words: “This team is currently last in the Division I rankings. Its worth is based solely on its leader, who didn’t finish the last Tour de France, nor the other races since. We have no guarantee on his form, now or in the future. We haven’t seen Marco Pantani, professional cyclist, for eight or nine months. How do you want us to be reassured by Marco’s actual condition?”
In response to those sentiments — and Leblanc had no compunction in choosing several Division II teams from France — Mercatone Uno’s directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli said, “I’m very upset. I believed right up to the last moment that Italian cycling would be represented by Marco Pantani, but I was wrong. I’m not giving up on changing the mind of Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc; [I’m] counting on the performance of Pantani at the Giro d’Italia.”
In conclusion, and referring to his selection of two more French teams, Leblanc said, “The Tour has chosen to show confidence in young riders, to favor development. We have [in BigMat and La Française des Jeux] teams that have chosen that course. We decided unanimously to give a chance to these two teams, to show our support of French cycling in a concrete manner. This is also a sign of breaking from a [former] cycling era.”
This last sentence was a reference to his committee’s exclusion of many of the top stars of the 1990s: Pantani, Cipollini, Zülle and Escartin. But Leblanc did include another aging star who is short on form and fitness. His name? Laurent Jalabert, who leads CSC. Well, he is French….