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Analysis: Tour de France wildcards aren’t so wild

True to its conservative tendencies, ASO picked the same four wildcard teams for this year’s Tour de France as it did in 2015. Aside from Dimension Data, now a WorldTour team, not much has changed: Direct Energie, Cofidis, Bora – Argon 18, and Fortuneo – Vital Concept will take the start at Mont Saint-Michel on July 2. And same as last year, they’ll probably have little to show for their efforts when things wrap up on the Champs-Élysées, 21 stages later.

None of the four teams won a stage in last year’s Tour. All but Direct Energie (then Europcar) finished near the bottom of the team standings.

Direct Energie had the best showing last year, with Pierre Rolland finishing 10th overall and sixth in the mountains classification. But now he rides for Cannondale. Direct Energie now seems to be a de facto retirement home for France’s aging Tour stars, Sylvain Chavanel and Thomas Voeckler, both 36, who haven’t won at the Grande Boucle since 2010 and 2012, respectively. Naturally, the ASO couldn’t deny two of France’s most popular riders a spot in the Tour, but that doesn’t mean they’ll influence the race.

Bryan Coquard may be Direct Energie’s one chance to nab a stage win, as he was fifth in the points classification last July and second on the Champs-Élysées behind André Greipel.

But banking on a sprinter for Tour glory is risky. All it took was one crash, in stage 5, to scuttle the plans Cofidis had for last year’s Tour. It lost its star sprinter, Nacer Bouhanni, and since the team was built around his ambitions, it effectively ruined their July. Tour organizers want to give Bouhanni another shot, given that he won three Giro stages and two Vuelta stages in 2014 but has yet to notch a Tour victory, let alone make it past the race’s first week. He could deliver a crowd-pleasing win on one of the flat days.

Bora is a rather uninspired choice, but perhaps the ASO is appealing to German cycling fans, whose country will host the race’s Grand Départ in 2017, the first time in 30 years. The German team’s one bright spot is Emanuel Buchmann, who finished ninth in the best young riders’ classification. The 23-year-old German champ could be a factor in the white jersey competition again this season. Bora might also tap up-and-coming Irish sprinter Sam Bennett, but he (and his lead-out train) is not mature enough to factor in a Tour sprint. Again, grand tour bunch sprints are rarely fruitful for Pro Continental teams.

Although Fortuneo (formerly Bretagne – Séché Environnement) has few big names on its roster, it may have the best opportunity for one day’s glory in July. Brice Feillu won stage 7 of the 2009 Tour, at Andorra Arcalis, and that sort of swashbuckling attack may work again, if the day’s race dynamics play out. Otherwise, the team’s main selling point is its nationality, but one can’t fault a French race for picking French teams.

So if not these four wildcards, which teams should race the Tour? Belgium’s two top Pro Continental teams, Topsport –Vlaanderen and Wanty – Groupe Gobert, would surely factor in the breakaways and reduced-bunch sprints. No, they aren’t cut out for stage 12’s Mont Ventoux, but the men from the lowlands would likely enjoy the potentially windy first two stages in Bretagne. Their focus is mostly spring classics (no surprise), but since neither is in the Giro, a Tour slot would help them fill out the summer season. It’s unlikely they’ll go to the Vuelta either — they weren’t there last year.

Drapac and CCC Sprandi – Polkowice would also be interesting additions — both tend to animate the big races they’re called up for. However, Australian-based Drapac might not have the European logistics dialed enough for a three-week grand tour, and ASO probably wouldn’t be willing to invite a team (CCC) that employs Davide Rebellin, an unrepentant ex-doper.

The Tour’s motivations are rather clear — from a France-centric perspective, the four picks make sense (mostly). The thing is, they just won’t matter all that much come July unless one of the wildcards actually, you know, gets wild and races with enough aggression to find the right breakaway.