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Étoile de Bessèges spotlights battle for Tour de France wildcard places

French teams are likely to get the two Tour wildcard picks, but Uno-X isn’t giving up all hope yet.

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ALÈS, France (VN) – The Tour de France was a long way from the thoughts of most of the teams that lined up at the Étoile de Bessèges — the first French stage race of the season — with the event giving them the chance to blow off the cobwebs and continue the integration of new recruits.

For the Norwegian Uno-X team, though, the event presented an opportunity to push its hopes of receiving one of the two wildcard invitations remaining for July’s big race.

As things stand, the 18 WorldTeams receive an automatic invitation to the Tour, as do the top two teams in the 2021 ProTeam standings, Alpecin-Fenix and Arkéa-Samsic. That leaves two places left to fill, with TotalEnergies and B&B Hotels regarded as being in pole position for them given the tendency of Tour organizers ASO to favor domestic teams when handing out wildcard places.

Bearing in mind that TotalEnergies has boosted its attack substantially with the signing of seven-time Tour de France green jersey winner Peter Sagan, the team seems almost certain to receive one of the wildcards.

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Its performance at Bessèges bolstered this prospect as the team finished the race with Pierre Latour and Mathieu Burgaudeau in fourth and fifth place on GC, respectively, which helped it towards victory in the team competition.

B&B, however, was almost anonymous. Having seen sprinter Bryan Coquard head to Cofidis and the punchy Quentin Pacher join Groupama-FDJ, the squad’s attack seems diminished. Uno-X, meanwhile, was difficult to miss, and not only because their orange-and-red colors catch the eye so easily.

They were involved in almost every key moment of the race, putting young leader Tobias Johannessen in the position to take consecutive third places on days two and three, and doing so once again on day four when he took an excellent stage win atop Mont Bouquet.

After finishing third overall, Johannessen told VeloNews that his team is racing with the Tour very much in mind.

“If the organizers are watching this, we really want to go to the Tour,” he confirmed. “Of course, it’s up to them, but we are ready if they are ready.”

His comments followed those made by January by Uno-X’s general manager Jens Haugland, who told Feltet.dk, “We have a dream to be on the start line in Copenhagen. It’s not wildly likely, so we have low expectations. However, we think we’ve earned it.”

A Cofidis revived

ASO has not yet said when they plan to announce their wildcard picks. Last year they did so during Bessèges, when the UCI’s decision to allow all three Grand Tours to select 23 teams instead of 22 due to the calendar restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic enabled them to make three picks.

The three major French ProTeams got the vote then, and B&B justified its selection thanks to the dynamic Franck Bonnamour winning the award as the Tour’s most aggressive rider. This year, it appears there will only be two spots, and Bessèges made clear that Uno-X is determined to have a good go at securing one of them.

Wildcard projections and the hugely impressive performance of Tobias Johannessen aside, the big winners at Bessèges were Cofidis. The perennially underperforming French squad brought in a host of new names over the winter and two of them delivered instantly, Bryan Coquard winning the uphill sprint at Rousson on day two and Benjamin Thomas victorious at Bèssèges the day after — a success that helped him towards overall victory.

These victories were particularly timely given that they came days after the death of their long-time team director Bernard Quilfen, for whom a minute’s silence was held prior to the opening stage.

“It was a really super week, it couldn’t really have gone any better thanks to Bryan’s win and then mine. At that point the week was already a success,” Thomas said. “The GC victory that was confirmed in the time trial was a really good reward for the team for the work they’ve done this week. We’ve shown a new side, a more collective side, and that’s what we want to keep showing throughout this season.”

There were strong performances too from Trek-Segafredo and EF Education-EasyPost. The former won the opening stage thanks to Mads Pedersen, who also finished second on two other days, while 20-year-old Italian Antonio Tiberi showed his qualities by finishing third on Mont Bouquet and 10th in the closing TT.

EF was also prominent, helping Alberto Bettiol to top 10 finishes on all five stages, which enabled him to take second place on GC.