Mercury, Saeco and Mercatone won't be there
The Société du Tour de France on Wednesday surprised many by announcing the names of five wild-card teams that will be invited to compete in the 2001 Tour. The announcement brings the total number of participants to 189 riders, representing 21 teams. As expected, the Belgian Lotto-Adecco team topped a list that also includes Denmark’s CSC-World Online, the Basque country team of Euskaltel-Euskadi and two additional French teams, BigMat-Auber 93 and La Française des Jeux. Notably absent from the list are the Mercatone Uno team of 1998 Tour winner Marco Pantani, the Saeco squad of super sprinter Mario Cipollini and the United States’s second Division I team, Mercury-Viatel.
The decision to invite five teams contradicts earlier comments from Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc that the number of teams contesting this year’s race would be limited to 20. The inclusion of BigMat-Auber 93 and La Française des Jeux now raises the number of French teams in the 2001 race to eight. Ag2r Prevoyance, Bonjour, Cofidis, Credit Agricole, Festina and Jean Delatour were among the teams named in the first round of invitations on January 16.
Five of those eight French teams — Ag2r Prevoyance, BigMat-Auber 93, Bonjour, Jean Delatour and La Française Des Jeux – are UCI Division II teams. Leblanc and the Tour have said that an effort would be made to raise the number of French participants in the event. There hasn’t been a French winner of the Tour de France since Bernard Hinault won in 1985 and for the first time in more than 60 years, no French rider even won a single stage in the 1999 Tour.
Jalabert yes, Pantani, Cipollini no
The career of 1998 Tour de France champion Marco Pantani was dealt another serious blow when Tour organizers opted not to issue a wildcard invitation for his Mercatone Uno team. The 31-year-old will be joined on the sidelines by another Italian Tour de France legend, as ace sprinter Mario Cipollini as his Saeco team also missed out.
However, there was joy for former French world number one Laurent Jalabert, as his Danish-based team CSC-World Online earned one of the five wildcard spots announced on Wednesday. The 32-year-old Frenchman, whose best finish in the Tour was fourth in 1995, has only just returned to the saddle after recovering from a freak domestic accident that resulted in serious back injuries. Earlier this year, Jalabert fell from a ladder while changing a lightbulb, breaking three vertebrae in his back. He is well on the road to recovery and is expected to be fit and ready for the Tour. Leblanc explained that the exclusion of Pantani, who also won the 1998 Giro d’Italia, was because of his lack of form.
“Is he still a cyclist?” Leblanc asked sarcastically of Pantani.
Cipollini, known as ‘The Lion King’ for his flowing golden locks, has had a miserable past year missing the chance to break compatriot Gino Bartali’s Tour de France record of 12 stage wins last year after being injured in a crash while training for the Tour.
Mercury ‘s disappointment
Reached by telephone in France on Wednesday morning, Mercury-Viatel team director John Wordin said “disappointment” was his only reaction to the announcement. “Very disappointed,” he added. Wordin and the Mercury team have been on an active campaign since last year to compete in the Tour. The team undertook an aggressive recruiting effort at the end of 2000, signing a number of top-ranked riders, including 1996 Giro d’Italia winner Pavel Tonkov and his Mapei teammate Chann McRae. When the team later merged with the newly formed Viatel squad, the roster was further boosted by the addition of several riders including classics strongmen Leon Van Bon and Peter Van Petegem. Those new riders, and their accompanying UCI points, brought the squad up to Division I status, increasing its chances to snag its prime 2001 objective, an invitation to the Tour de France. But this past January, when Leblanc announced the names of the first 16 teams invited to the Tour, he said that there would be a need to make an effort to include a greater number of French teams and riders in France’s national tour. Toward that end, the list of invitees included Division II teams from France. But Wordin said he remained confident that Mercury-Viatel would make the last round of wild-card invitations in May.That confidence has been eroding in recent weeks, Wordin told VeloNews on Wednesday.
“The rumors have been going around like crazy,” said Wordin. “A few weeks ago the rumors were all that we were in. Then it started to change.”
The team has encountered a run of bad luck in recent weeks with illness, injuries and badly timed flat tires in big races and the pick seemed less certain. Then a week ago, a Danish newspaper, Copenhagen’s daily Berlingske Tidende reported that it had the inside line on which four teams would be picked. The paper’s picks were only partially accurate. It had named just four teams and included the Saeco squad on the list. But the publication triggered a new round of speculation.
“Right or wrong, we weren’t on that list,” said Wordin.
Wordin said he entered this week feeling not at all confident. “I felt if the selection was objective, we would be in, but… objective criteria weren’t necessarily what drove this.”
Asked what factors may have come in to play, Wordin said “You’d have to ask (the Société). Obviously politics played a part. The announcement today went against everything they said the were going to do. Jean-Marie Leblanc said there were going to be six French teams, there are now eight. There are now five Division II teams and a lot of strong Division I teams here waiting on the sidelines.”
“It’s a French race and I understand that they may want to protect French cycling, but to do so at the expense of quality international cycling is not such a good move.”
The French wire Service AFP contributed to this report.