By VeloNews Interactive, Copyright AFP 2001
Union Cycliste International president Hein Verbruggen said Friday that Tour de France organizers have placed parochial interests ahead of the sport in their decision to issue wildcard invites to two Division II French teams and not to the teams of Italy’s 1998 champion Marco Pantani and sprint ace Mario Cipollini.
Verbruggen, in an interview with the Dutch news agency ANP, said that in the future different measures will be in place as to who was invited to the major Tours if they did not qualify automatically through the world rankings.
“The Tour organizers placed chauvinistic and national interests above sporting criteria,” Verbruggen said.
“The Tour directors went outside sporting rules which should be the valid issue in a competition as prestigious as the Tour de France,” he added.
As is tradition, Tour organizers extended invitations to 16 teams in January, with an announcement scheduled for May 2 in which another four teams would be named. Usually those January picks are based purely on teams’ relative standings, but Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said that this year there would be an extra effort to include domestic teams in the race and named three Division II teams from France in the first round. On Wednesday, Leblanc further inflamed controversy when he announced the names of five additional teams, two of which — BigMat-Auber 93 and La FranÁaise des Jeux — are Division II French teams. Several Division I teams — Pantani’s Mercatone Uno squad, Cipollini’s Saeco team and the American Mercury-Viatel team — were snubbed.
Verbruggen said that the decision by Leblanc and five other selectors could ultimately damage cycling financially if repeated.
“It is a bad thing for the sport if it is repeated,” he said.
“The new sponsors should be able to count on the teams competing at the top events are there because they deserve it on merit.
“If not, they will simply walk away,” the UCI president added.
Verbruggen, said he had received a number of complaints from teams objecting to their exclusion from the event, but added that he was powerless to do anything this year but that it would not happen again. “I can only do my best for next season,” he said. “That is why a dossier will be put together which will lay out the rules as to who should be invited.”
“The sporting side has to be the main priority,” he added.
Leblanc had explained on Wednesday that the organizers had issued five and not the expected four wildcards because they wanted to aid French cycling — the two French teams being BigMat-Auber 93 and La FranÁaise des Jeux — which has not welcomed home a winner of the Tour since Bernard Hinault won in 1985. The organizers also issued one to the Danish-based team of CSC whose team leader is Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, a consistent failure at this level since his fourth placing in 1995.
Leblanc, a former cyclist and journalist at L’Equipe newspaper, claimed that Pantani was not invited because of his current poor form, though he was in similarly bad shape last year before winning two classic stages in the Tour, and Cipollini because he had started seven Tours and had never finished any of them.
While Pantani described the decision as “revolting,” Cipollini replied in more effective fashion by winning Thursday’s final stage of the Tour of Trentino and later claimed that he would be sending many similar messages to Leblanc prior to the Tour.
Copyright AFP 2001