The cycling season cometh.
Although it feels far too early to be thinking about the 2020 Tour de France – we haven’t even got the pre-season friendlies… underway yet – the announcement of the wildcards this week rather obliges our minds to leap ahead to July. Cofidis taking the number of WorldTour teams to n-n-n-n-nineteen (that’s a Paul Hardcastle reference, kids) means there were only three spots available, all of which have gone to home clubs.
As easy as it is to cry “French fix!” or perhaps “J’accuse!”, a review of the teams’ respective rosters and records, compared to those of the other would-be contenders for the spots, rather reveals the hollowness of such a claim.
All three have significantly strengthened their squads in recent seasons: with Barguil already on their books, adding Nairo Quintana, Winner Anacona, Diego Rosa and Nacer Bouhanni to them between last year and this adds to the sense that Arkea Samsic are Pro-Conti in name only; Direct Energie can boast Niki Terpstra, Lilian Calemejane, and winner of the 2019 Gran Premio Miguel Indurain, Jonathan Hivert. Yes, that’s a real race, not a sportif.
B&B Hotels – Vital Concept p/b KTM – please can they come up with a better name by the summer? – have Tom-Jelte Slagter; the 2014 Belgian national champion, Jens Debusschere – not to be confused with Jens Keukeleire – and, of course, Bryan Coquard. Rouleur’s editor, Andy McGrath, admits to having a soft spot for Coquard, so he is certainly pleased that the 27 year-old sprinter looks set to return to the Tour for the first time since 2016. [Sidenote: How on earth is Bryan Coquard still only 27?!]
Discounting the Italians and the Spanish, who we would expect to be favoured in their own home Grand Tours, of the ones to miss out Circus-Wanty Gobert, who lined up at the last three Tours, probably feel the most hard done by. The Dutch squad still contains names you know, like Jan Bakelants, Maurits Lammertink, and a couple of Van Poppels, but few, if any riders, you can imagine doing much in the world’s biggest bike race.
The team might have finished last season 18th in the world rankings, but several of those responsible for the recent years’ strong showings – Guillaume Martin, Frederik Backaert – have since moved on.
Which brings us to Alpecin-Fenix (now there’s a strong team name). Just as Wanty are on the slide, the Dutch outfit known formerly as Corendon-Circus and formerly known best as the vehicle for Mathieu van de Poel’s ambition, have been quietly adding depth to their squad over the winter. Double Giro stage winner, Sacha Modolo has joined from EF; Petr Vakoč arrives out of Deceuninck Quick Step; Louis Vervaeke lands from Sunweb. They also have Tim Merlier. Who? Umm, he’s only the reigning Belgian national champion who beat Philippe Gilbert and Wout van Aert to the dubious honour of a year wearing the most imposing jersey in the sport.
You can make a case for them, but even Alpecin-Fenix don’t seem to think they’re ready. With only one season at PCT level under their belt, it would rather feel like they were jumping the queue had they been awarded a place in the Tour de France so soon. His fans might want to see MvdP on the biggest stage of all, but it looks like they’ll have to be satisfied with him dominating the cross season and claiming at least one and quite possibly three Monuments in the spring. Plus it seems a lot to ask of a rider who has still only ridden a handful of multi-day senior races.
You might say that loading the line-up with locals rather helps France make up with quantity what they’re lacking in quality. Or you could agree with us, that the home nation is enjoying a purple patch at the moment – remember Julian Alaphilippe? – with depth and breadth of talent throughout its teams, from the WorldTour to Pro Conti level.
Between them they might not have a single rider who is ready to win the whole thing, but they’ve earned the right to be there. Simple, n’est-ce pas?