As some of you know, I spent most of last week flat on my back contemplating my robotic mortality and cursing whatever pig-robot (pigbot?) had found a way to infect me with its H1N1 virus. For the most part, during this time, I cut myself off from media. No TV. No interweb.
And yet, some time, mid-week, an email from my friend Gustavo at Embrocation Journal snuck through. What did I think, he wanted to know, of the Tour de France invites from ASO this year. More specifically, he wanted to confirm that I was as angry as he was that Vacansoleil and some of the other small teams (Skil-Shimano, Saur Sojasun) that have so animated the first months of the season failed to make ASO’s grade while underperforming pro teams coasted in on their good looks and the pre-existing agreement the UCI and ASO have to admit 16 of the ProTour teams to the Grand Boucle automatically.
Even in my weakened state, I was able to give Gustavo what he wanted, a frank and terse evaluation of some of the ProTour’s lesser lights, a caustic dismissal of ASO’s motives and a side swipe at some of the peloton’s new entrants.
And as I’m just getting back on my feet this week (or back on my pedals as the case may be), I thought I’d trot out some of my ideas and see if we can’t get some discussion going.
First, let me say I can’t contrive a reasonable argument for excluding Vacansoleil from the Tour. The small, Dutch Pro-Continental team, in just its second year on the road, has won the overall of the Tour of Qatar with Wouter Mol, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with Bobbie Traksel and two stages of the Étoile de Bességes with Borut Bozic. Those are their wins, which tell only half the story. Vacansoleil’s riders have placed highly throughout the early season and pushed the big teams at every opportunity. They have done everything you would want a wild card Tour invitee to do and then a bit more.
Instead, ASO picked Garmin-Transitions, Team RadioShack, BMC Racing Team, Team Sky, Katusha and Cervelo TestTeam as their wild cards. If you run through this list, write down their major results for 2010 and then compare them to Vacansoleil, you’ll get very little in the way of difference. Some have won a little more. Some have won less. What you won’t see, but probably know, is that each of these teams has a great deal more money than the Dutch outfit. They’ve signed stars, so ASO imagines they’ll bring more attention to the Tour, as if the Tour suffers for a lack of attention.
Of the wild cards here, the one that actually rankles me most is RadioShack. The Shack have done a lot of not much this year. Every time their leader finds his way onto a television camera he is telling you why the race he’s about to ride is really just a tune up for the Tour and how he’s not going to push himself very hard or be very bothered by not getting a result. Meanwhile, his teammates wrack up no wins. Team RadioShack reminds me a bit of the Jackson’s Victory Tour, a money-spinning gallop across the globe by a former champion and his over-the-hill friends.
Ooooh, that’s harsh.
Still, the Shack’s value to ASO lies completely in the false rivalry between Armstrong and Contador. It’s a story that sells sponsorships, I suppose. And magazines. And yet, does anyone think Armstrong will get near el Pistolero in France this summer? The former champ has had a pretty poor buildup this season. He’s been sick. He’s been tired. And he’s been old. There are half-a-dozen riders or more that will finish above the marketing juggernaut come the final day in Paris.
On top of their lack of results, the Shack have gone about their business in that age-old Armstrong-Bruyneel way, i.e. with very little regard for any race that isn’t called the Tour de France. They’re not even racing the Giro! They’ve chosen the Tour of California “instead.” The ToC is a great race, an up-and-comer, a suitable rival for Paris-Nice and the other one week stage races, but one thing it is NOT is a good reason to skip the Giro d’Italia. A team with a budget like the Shack’s really ought to be able to contest both races anyway.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I don’t think the Shack deserves its Tour invite simply based on Armstrong’s legacy with the race and the money he’ll bring to its organizers. In the real world, those are entirely valid reasons for their inclusion. But from my perspective, they stink.
That brings us, rather unceremoniously, to the rest of the truth of this situation, which is that there a number of ProTour teams that just can’t pull their own weight. I’d name Team Milram, Footon-Servetto, Euskaltel-Euskadi among those. Because the UCI paved the way for guaranteed invitations to a group of ProTour squads in a 2008 accord that helped avoid a complete debacle in which ASO took its races and went home, they’re all in, but, if the ProTour had a minimum win number (say 10 races of a certain ranking per year), you’d see more licenses available for teams that win, but I am far from the first to suggest the UCI need a better system for promotion and relegation of pro teams.
Starting in 2011, only the first 17 teams in the UCI rankings at the end of 2010 will get guaranteed Tour invites, with the rest filled at ASO’s discretion. This may be a more equitable way of slicing the Tour pie, but, by and large, what you will end up with is still a race full of the wealthiest rather than the fastest teams. The rest can, perhaps, call Vacansoleil and book one of those summer holidays they sell when they’re not riding bicycles.