Do Team Sky really deserve a Tour place?

In this year’s Tour de France twenty teams took part. Seventeen of those teams were part of the Pro Tour. There were in fact eighteen Pro Tour teams this year, but the Tour organisers decided not to include the Fuji-Servetto team, this in no small part due to the doping scandal created by Ricardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli at the 2008 Tour under the team’s former guise of Saunier Duval. This left three spots open for the powers that be to invite to the world’s biggest race. Of these three wildcard places, one went to the Cervelo Test Team, the team of returning Tour champion Carlos Sastre, this seemed an obvious choice. The second wild card was awarded to the Dutch team Skil-Shimano seemingly because of their aggressive showing in the Spring races. The third berth, as is the ASO’s wont, was given to a French team, namely Agritubel who were invited for the fourth year in a row.

Next year however the situation will be different. The Fuji-Servetto team (now Footon-Servetto), having been ignored this year, will expect to back on the Tour scene next year. The UCI having set a precedent by excluding the controversial Astana team in 2008 but welcoming them back this year. There are also two new teams, Team Sky and Radio Shack hoping for an invite. Not returning though will be the Pro Tour teams Crédit Agricole and Gerolsteiner, and the perennial wild cards Agritubel who have all folded. This leaves 16 teams who were part of the Pro Tour when the UCI agreed that all of them would be invited to take part in the Tour de France for the next four years. These teams are:

Ag2r La Mondiale
Bbox Bouygues Telecom
Caisse d’Epargne
Francaise des Jeux
Columbia HTC
Team Saxo Bank
Team Milram

Assuming the number of teams participating in the Tour next year remains at twenty, this now leaves four wild card places to be filled. Even though the amount of wild card places is double that of most years gone by, I don’t share the unflappable confidence that most people have about the participation of Team Sky. The British publications Pro Cycling and Cycle Sport constantly write about Team Sky as if their place in the Tour next year is assured. If they had signed either of the two top British riders Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish, it probably would be, but they didn’t. They are a new team with some decent established riders and some great up and coming talent but do they really deserve a place at the Tour de France?

The other teams hoping for an invite next summer will be Team Radio Shack, BMC Racing, Garmin, Katusha, Skil Shimano, Vacansoleil, Xacobeo-Galicia, Besson-Sojasun and Cervelo. Of these teams, I feel that plenty of them have more reason to be invited to the Tour next year than Team Sky. Below is a table detailing the amount of riders on each team who have previously taken part in the Tour de France, the amount of Grand Départs that these riders between them have been a part of and the amount of Tour stage wins they’ve amassed over the years:

Details of the number of Tour starts made by riders, the number of separate riders who have previously taken part in the Tour, and the number of stage wins amassed by riders for each of the teams hoping to gain a wild card entry to the 2010 Tour de France. Next years rider rosters were used to create the table.

Details of the number of Tour starts made by riders, the number of separate riders who have previously taken part in the Tour, and the number of stage wins amassed by riders for each of the teams hoping to gain a wild card entry to the 2010 Tour de France. Next years rider rosters were used to create the table.

Apart from the previous Tour performances of the teams, the political issues must also be looked at, as the reasons for gaining an invite from the ASO are not always sporting. Obviously Radio Shack will expect an invite with Lance Armstrong part of their setup. Armstrong vs Contador was the story of this year’s Tour and the Tour organisers will be hoping for the same media interest as Round 2 of the battle takes place. Radio Shack also have two riders who’ve stood on the Tour podium, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer. There is Cervelo who have Carlos Sastre, also a former Tour winner. Cervelo can also boast Thor Hushovd, twice winner of the Tour’s green jersey and one half of the other main story of last year’s Tour, Hushovd vs Cavendish in the points competition.

Then there are the two current Pro Tour squads but who weren’t part of the original sixteen team invite agreement, Garmin and Katusha. Garmin harbour two riders who have finished 4th in the race in Bradley Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde. They also have two former Prologue winners and yellow jersey wearers Davids Millar and Zabriskie. Katusha have former yellow jersey wearer Kim Kirchen, three time green jersey winner Robbie McEwen in what could be his final Tour and they also have double stage winners Filippo Pozzato and Sergei Ivanov. It’s hard not to see these four teams getting invites to the Tour, with the riders they possess and the past Tour experience contained therein and from an Irish point of view it would be ideal if Cervelo and Garmin were present. That would mean that potentially, the top three Irish professionals, Roche, Deignan and Martin could all be on the start line next July.

Not to be forgotten though is the fact that BMC Racing hold a winning hand in the shape of Cadel Evans, current World Champion. The only previous time that the Rainbow Jersey has been purposely shunned from the Tour is in 2003 when the organisers refused to invite the Domina Vacanze team of Mario Cipollini. But, the Lion King had for years gone out of his way to annoy race organisers by wearing outrageous racing gear and had never previously finished a Tour de France. Cadel Evans is a different story. He’s a very professional rider who has twice finished 2nd in the Tour. As such it is very difficult to imagine ASO leaving Evans and therefore BMC out in the cold. They also have former World Champion Alessandro Ballan and former stage winner and yellow jersey wearer George Hincapie. Of the four tems mentioned above, I feel that despite their glut of strong riders, the place of Katusha seems the most vulnerable should BMC be invited.

There is however a lifeline which has recently been cast out by the Tour organisers which is that they are considering increasing the number of teams to 22, which may or may not result in rider numbers being reduced from nine to eight per team. This moves the number of wild card places for aspiring teams up from four to six. So with, as I see it, Radio Shack, Cervelo, Garmin, Katusha and BMC Racing taking the first five wild card places, this leaves Skil-Shimano, Vacansoleil, Xacobeo-Galicia, Besson Sojasun and Team Sky.

Firstly, I think that Xacobeo-Galicia will not be considered. They are a modest Spanish setup who tend to perform only in stage races in their home country. They also have no riders who have previously taken part in the Tour de France. Then there is Skil-Shimano who were granted one of the coveted wild card places last year. This by no means guarantess them a place this time around though. One of the other interesting aspects of the Tour last year was the daily struggle of ‘the worst climber ever‘ Kenny van Hummel. He endeared himself to plenty of fans and many feel that he deserves an inclusion in next year’s race. But I really don’t feel that is a valid reason for a team’s inclusion and I think Skil-Shimano will be overlooked next year.

That leaves Vacansoleil, Besson-Sojasun and Team Sky for the last remaining place. Team Sky’s trump cards that they’ll be relying on for that precious invite will be former Tour stage winners Simon Gerrans, Kurt Asle-Arvesen, Juan Antonio Flecha and Sylvain Calzati. They can also claim to have one of the most exciting up and coming talents in the world of cycling Edvald Boasson Hagen who will be hoping to take part in his first Tour de France. Vacansoleil on the other hand don’t have as strong a squad as Team Sky. However, they have signed France’s favourite brothers Romain and Brice Feillu who between them have won a stage and worn the yellow jersey. Also, what must not be forgotten is the fact that they are a Dutch squad. The Tour de France will be starting in the Netherlands in 2010 and Rotterdam would have paid plenty of money for this honour. It is entirely possible that ASO have made an agreement with the Dutch to extend a wild card invitation to at least one Dutch team. With the disappearance of Agritubel, the only viable French team left to offer a wild card to is Besson-Sojasun (soon to be renamed Saur-Sojasun). The ASO have a history of issuing wild cards to French teams, after all it is the Tour de France. Besson Sojasun have French favourites Jimmy Casper, Jonathan Hivert and Sébastien Joly on board. The prospect of one of the bigger cycling teams being bumped in favour of this French squad is very real and should not be ignored. Also, inviting Radio Shack, Garmin and BMC while leaving out Besson-Sojasun would lead to the prospect of there being the  same number of USA based teams in the Tour as French based teams, not something that ASO would take kindly to.

In a recent interview with Simon Gerrans in the January 2010 issue of Cycle Sport, he states that the reason he left Cervelo for Team Sky is that he was not picked for the Tour team. He didn’t fit the mold of either a domestique for Sastre in the mountains or a lead out man for Hushovd in the sprints so he was excluded. Gerrans may have moved to a team in which he will assume a leader’s role, but if I were him I wouldn’t be booking his flight to Rotterdam just yet. It may take a stellar performance by Team Sky’s riders in the Spring to tip the wild card scales in their direction. But with the undoubted talent of Edvald Boassan Hagen on board, they just might have the rider capable of winning enough races to get them to France in July.

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