CALPE, Spain (VN) — The Sea and Sun hotel is bustling with activity. It’s time for pre-Christmas training camps, and teams from across Europe have piled onto Spain’s Costa Blanca, looking for good riding, fair weather, and a chance to regroup before the start of a new season. On Monday evening, French teams were filling the hotel lobby, with riders from FDJ.fr and Ag2r-La Mondiale buzzing around.
Europcar is also there, but following the disappointing news last week that the team would not carry a UCI WorldTour license for 2015, there is a sense of uncertainty and frustration that is a sharp contrast to the energy surrounding their compatriots.
“No one knows what’s going to happen with the racing schedules,” Europcar rider Dan Craven told VeloNews. “Without the WorldTour license, everyone’s racing schedule is going to look very different. Everyone is waiting to see what happens.”
A financial shortfall left the French team unable to meet UCI-mandated criteria, and after one season racing at the WorldTour level in 2014, Europcar will slip back into the Pro Continental ranks for next season.
While everyone’s jobs of the 28 riders and support staff appear safe for 2015, the team’s future remains far from certain. Team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau already confirmed that title sponsor Europcar will end its five-year run at the conclusion of next season, meaning he will be under pressure to find a new title sponsor to keep the long-running French team, which dates back to 2000, in the peloton.
With the team’s uncertain future, Bernaudeau has even hinted that the team’s top riders, such Thomas Voeckler, Pierre Rolland, and Bryan Coquard, could be free to join other squads.
The main worry for riders will be schedules and securing a number of quality racing days. Without a WorldTour license, Europcar will be back at the mercy of major race organizers to earn invitations to start the season’s most important races. The team already has lost its spot at the season-opener at the Santos Tour Down Under in Australia.
What’s even more distressing is losing out on automatic starts for grand tours and the major stage races. The team should be able to count on an invitation to race the Tour de France, especially if Voeckler and Rolland remain in the team kit, but it’s highly unlikely they would earn invites to the Giro d’Italia or Vuelta a España.
That will put a big squeeze on riders within the team to earn a spot to race a grand tour in 2015.
“I was really looking forward to racing the Giro this year, and now that looks like it might not happen,” said Craven, who joined Europcar mid-season and raced the Vuelta. “If the team only races the Tour, there will be a lot of guys really trying to make the nine-man squad. If we don’t race the Giro and Vuelta, it will be hard for many to ride a grand tour this year.”
As the team went through the motions of the training camp this week in Spain, there remained a lot of unknowns moving into 2015. Rather than being able to count on a WorldTour-level calendar, something that would especially be helpful in a hunt for a new sponsor, the team will be left scrambling to patch together enough quality races to keep everyone busy.
Even earning starts in such races as Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné will require the invitation from race organizers. Starts in French races seem likely, but much more less so in events beyond the Alps, such as Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy or the Volta a Catalunya in Spain.
Last year, for example, Rolland raced the Giro for the first time, finishing a solid fourth overall that constituted his best ever grand tour result of his career.
And the team’s WorldTour status in 2014 helped open the door for Craven, who won the Tour du Cameroun for a Continental squad, and he promptly started and finished the Vuelta — his first career grand tour.
Many of those doors will be closed without a WorldTour license. Riders like Coquard, a promising sprinter who had hoped to race the Giro in 2015, will be forced to scale back their ambitions.
“It’s a real blow about this WorldTour license that has been denied us. It’s hard to swallow,” Coquard told L’Equipe. “We have to change everything. For example, I was going to race the Tour Down Under, and now I have no choice but to be at Etoile de Bessèges. And now we have to be waiting on all the organizers for invitations, and that makes it hard to plan the season. Apart from the Tour, I won’t be racing another grand tour in 2015.”
With three French teams packed into the same hotel, it’s hard not to imagine a few Europcar riders having some sideline conversations with directors at Ag2r and FDJ. But at this point, with contracts and team budgets all but tapped out, most Europcar riders will have to make the most of the coming season, and hope the team can secure enough invitations to keep everyone busy racing their bikes.