Friday’s Tour de France wildcard announcement landed with all the drama of a pebble dropping into a sea.
Peter Sagan‘s presence at DirectEnergies only served to confirm the presumptive choice of the French team, a decades-long presence in the grande boucle. And everyone knew that the two-wheeled cash register otherwise known as the “Saganator” would be in the Tour.
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The only team somewhat on the fence was French outfit B&B Hotels-KTM, a second-tier squad that’s been part of the Tour landscape since 2020.
ASO traditionally supports the smaller French teams, and unless there’s behind-the-scenes financial incentive to do otherwise, the French are always first in line for the Tour.
Uno-X and Euskaltel-Euskadi might have harbored some Tour ambitions this year, but those two teams will be in pole position for 2023 and beyond as those franchises grow and mature.
— Tao Geoghegan Hart (@taogeoghegan) February 11, 2022
So it was a no-drama Friday when it came to the team invitations for 2022.
It wasn’t always that way.
In the not-so-long-ago past, the annual spring ritual of doling out Tour de France invitations used to be one of the most-watched and controversial stories of the year.
A team’s or rider’s future would hang in the balance while the ASO cronies fretted and decided who was worthy, and who wasn’t.
The media would report every hint, and teams would do everything they could to posture and strut in the early part of a season to claim a cherished spot at the Tour start line.
The Tour was (and is) cycling’s ultimate insider’s club, and only the cool kids got the invites.
And no matter who received the cherished bids, controversy almost always ensued.
Even top GC favorites were sometimes overlooked if they were on the wrong team or had somehow offended the Tour’s sense of good taste or decorum.
Remember when Mario Cipollini was left at home when he was the reigning world champion in 2003? His showboating while he dressed up as Julius Caesar and cavorting with podium girls rubbed some the wrong way in the hallowed hallways in the tony Parisian suburb at Issy-les-Moulineaux.
Currying favor with Tour officials was a fine art, and sport directors and team managers would fawn to try to stay in the good graces with Jean-Marie Leblanc and other top ASO honchos.
There was plenty of politicking and behind-the-scenes financial shenanigans to assure a spot each summer in the cherished ligne de départ every July.
Keen observers could often see a direct line between the publicity banners lining the finish line of grand tours, and which teams would earn invitations on “sporting merit.”
Look no further than the sudden rise of today’s Israel-Premier Tech. Back in 2017, the team was in its first year at the Pro-Conti level, and hardly seemed like grand tour material.
The arrival of billionaire owner Sylvan Adams changed everything. A discreet meeting between Adams and RCS Sport officials that season quickly greased the wheels for a multi-million-euro payout for the Italian grand tour when Adams underwrote the Giro’s historic “big start” in Jerusalem the following year.
The team’s presence in that year’s Giro was an integral part of the contract, reportedly hashed out over a glass of Prosecco and a handshake.
Israel Start-Up Nation got its first grand tour start, and RCS Sport filled out its balance sheet with one the Giro’s biggest paydays ever. Everyone was happy.
Though many complain today that ASO and the Tour de France juggernaut still carries too much power and influence in the peloton, it used to be even worse. It wasn’t that long ago that a Tour director could arbitrarily kick out of a team from a laundry list of alleged insults, breaches of decorum, or flagrant rule-breaking.
The dawn of the EPO Era in the 1990s and into the new century saw a gnawing fracture between the race organizers and teams. ASO was loathe to have its race full of dopers, and tried to weed out the worst offenders.
In 2008, Astana was left out of that year’s Tour in the wake of a major doping scandal involving then-GC captain Alexander Vinokourov in the previous edition.
That forced Astana newcomer Alberto Contador out of the 2008 Tour, and he promptly went to the Giro d’Italia, where organizers welcomed him and his team with open arms. Contador won the Giro and later the Vuelta a España in a season when he could not defend his 2007 Tour title.
Of course, teams hated seeing their future held hostage by a French coterie in Paris.
Regardless of what anyone says, it’s the Tour de France that moves the needle for would-be sponsors. Any team could (and still can) lose its multi-million-dollar backers if it is snubbed or is somehow left out of the Tour for any reason at all.
In the 1980s and into the 1990s, teams began pushing for more structure and guarantees of being assured to race the Tour at the start of a season rather than waiting on the vagaries of the French cycling aristocracy.
Former UCI president Hein Verbruggen created the ProTour, a precursor of today’s WorldTour that built upon earlier racing leagues, and all but assured the top teams of a place in the Tour and the season’s other major races.
Race organizers, and ASO in particular, pushed back on this notion of an automatic bid in part because it undercut their ability to monetize the wildcard selection process.
The subsequent “WorldTour wars” going into the early 2000s saw a fragile detente between the UCI and the major race organizers that still largely holds today.
Under the so-called ceasefire, the top teams in the WorldTour league would see their Tour guarantee, and ASO would still held a few wildcard invitations in its pocket.
Newer rules limit the Tour’s flexibility even more, which call for the top-ranked teams in the second tier — now called the ProTeam ranking — also saw automatic bids.
There are some within the Tour organization and others in the peloton who push for a relegation/promotion system. A scaled-down version of that might be coming down the pipe as the UCI considers its next round of WorldTour licenses going into 2023.
That idea of a soccer league-style promotion/demotion is the anathema among teams. A team manager loses sleep imagining how one injury to a marquee rider or a few fallow months can torpedo a teams’ haul of points and a possible Tour bid, and thus its entire future.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who want to create a “closed system,” similar to a permanent franchise that will guarantee a start in the Tour and the other major races permanently.
Opponents to a NFL-style franchise argue that would lock out new sponsors and snuff out the grassroots at its European base.
Those eternal questions are part of a larger, never-ending debate of what’s the best way to manage and grow men’s professional road racing.
So where does that leave the peloton?
Friday’s tepid wildcard announcement confirmed that wildcard invitations these days mean almost nothing at all, and that’s just fine for the majority of teams. The mystery and stress are largely removed from the equation, and teams and riders can plan for a full season right from the gun, rather than racing themselves into a pulp to try to get to the Tour in the first place.
These days, for the most part, the teams that want to be in the Tour and deserve to be there typically make the grade.
There’s still some wiggle room for race organizers for a feel-good story along the way. It’s not hard to imagine the reborn Euskatel-Euskadi could be at the start line for the Tour’s grand départ in the Basque Country in 2023.
And isn’t that how the system is supposed to work? Not everyone is always going to be happy all the time, but who is?
Sometimes a lack of headlines and controversy is not such a bad thing for cycling once in a while.