MUSCAT, Oman (VN) — The newly formed Vital Concept team was always going to have a tough time earning respect from race organizers, but that doesn’t make it sting any less that ASO overlooked the squad for a Tour de France wildcard invite.
French speedster Bryan Coquard can’t sugarcoat the severity of the blow that the snub represents to his new team. At the same time, he accepts the rationale. He and the team hope they have chances to prove themselves worthy of an invite next time around.
“It’s very bad news but when you hear the explanation of ASO, they selected wildcards with the results of the last year,” he told VeloNews at the Tour of Oman on Saturday.
“Last season, this team was not created yet. So, okay, knowing we have no Tour de France [this year], we are looking to next year, because the wildcards then will be the ones that win this year. I think it’s important to work hard on the wins in important races.”
Back in 2015, Coquard sprinted to runner-up honors on the Champs-Élysées while riding for Europcar. He’s hungry to get back to the sport’s biggest stage. However, competition for the four wildcard spots at the Tour de France is fierce. French teams do get a leg up, but there aren’t enough invites for all of them.
Coquard knows the drill for a brand new team without a track record. If Vital Concept can prove capable in the 2.1s, the team will get the invites to the 2.HCs. If they can prove capable there, more WorldTour invites will begin to arrive.
Coquard might have avoided the hassle of setting his sights on smaller races this season by signing with a WorldTour squad last offseason, but he wasn’t interested in playing second fiddle to anyone.
“This team is created around me, to get some wins in good races,” he said. “When Jerome [Pineau, team manager] spoke with me about this project, I had a good feeling about it. I spoke with WorldTour teams, but I was always going to be a second sprinter. In this team, I’m first. I have a good feeling with this project and I’m sure in the future, we’ll be a big team. Step by step. It’s the first years. It’s all about progression.”
Left out of Paris-Nice as well, Coquard and company will have to make do with every chance they get this season. They don’t have the luxury of treating races as training rides.
Perhaps that’s why Coquard has 13 days of racing in his legs as of mid-February, and is already delivering results. He landed a pair of second places in the Sharjah Tour and another runner-up finish at Etoile de Bessèges. He finally broke through with a win on the opening day of Oman, ahead of the likes of Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates).
With that in mind, Coquard says he’s very happy the way his lead out has performed so far. When he hasn’t won, he says, it’s been purely because of his own legs. He and the team can’t complain about the way this year has started.
Looking past Oman, Coquard has his sights set on the fast-approaching northern classics. Vital Concept will be present at a number of the marquee one-days, and that means Coquard will be raring to go on the cobbles and hellingen in the coming weeks.
Though he generally shines brightest in bunch sprints, Coquard says his chief goal is actually one of the lumpiest classics on the WorldTour calendar.
“For me, it’s the Amstel Gold Race. I finished fourth there two years ago. It’s my big objective for the season,” he said.
“Also Gent-Wevelgem is a good classic for me. Last year I started Tour of Flanders and loved it. It’s the most fun race of the season, with a lot of people around. It’s amazing. I know I won’t win the Tour of Flanders but I think a good result is possible. Last year, I was in the final with the strong riders. But the principal objectives are Brabantse Pijl and Amstel.”
Coquard’s road back to the Tour will be a tough one no matter how this year plays out. A few results in the early goings of the season, however, certainly won’t hurt. Coquard may be a long way from the Champs-Élysées at the moment, but you have to start somewhere.
Getting an early win ahead of Cavendish and Kristoff seems as fine a starting point as any. If Coquard can build on that with one-day success in Belgium and the Netherlands, it won’t be long before Vital Concept’s racing calendar grows bigger and better.