AG2R You Kidding?
The jockeying for the 20th spot in the ProTour may seem like it is a lock for AG2R, but there is some skepticism from all sides. The issue would be weather AG2R genuinely deserves a 20th spot in the “SerieA” of cycling. The performance of the French team is somewhat lacking, and they did not have many notable riders on the roster. Team management tried to help their case of getting into the ProTour by signing such notable riders as Francisco Mancebo and Christophe Moreau. Does that really mean that they have the ability above other teams to race in all of the top events? They were invisible in the Tour de France where they had a wildcard entry. This is contrast to the wildcards in the Giro and Vuelta who performed beyond expectation. Communidad Valenciana, Selle Italia and Panaria more than justified their wildcard entries to their respective Tours by putting on great performances. Granted, AG2R is racing in the biggest race of the calendar, but the least they could do is be visible.
The other issue presented by an AG2R promotion is the unnatural balance of national teams. France would have 5 top level teams in Credit Agricole, Boygues Telecom, FDJuex, Cofidis and AG2R, while Italy would be down to three and Spain with four. Although France has the sponsorship money and the teams near the top, there aren’t many successful French riders. Most of the team’s top riders are foreign, and the best placed Frenchman in the ProTour is David Moncoutie at 30th. Meanwhile the Italians have been dominating the top sections of the ProTour rankings. AG2R was not the best team in the Continental Tour. They came in second behind Italian team Panaria. In soccer, Panaria would get the automatic selection to the 20th place. But the ProTour setup requires an application process, a huge bolster and a huge budget which not all Italian teams can afford. So does this mean that the ProTour powers shoudl allow a AG2R in as the 20th team? I say no, and leave 19 teams in the ProTour and allow for three wildcard entries to all of the races. Usually the wildcards provide the better performances, while some of the pack-filler teams such as FDJeux and Credit Agricole simply ride. It is possible, see below.
It is up to the commission. I don’t want to give the impression that Ag2R is going to get the license automatically. But equally I do not want to give the impression that there may only be 19 teams next year. It is up to the license commission, they can freely decide
So why are there so many top French teams spending money on cycling, while powerful Italy can’t get four or more teams to the top level? The answer is the Tour de France. The Tour is a large event that concentrates all of France during the month of July. The event is so big that is requires some very big budgets. French companies want to be involved and they sink money into some top level teams because that is where they can get more of their money back. This constant focus on the top level may have left the lower levels with less money or even less interest. As a result, not as many young French riders are involved in cycling, and there aren’t as many top-level performers in the French scene. Contrast that with Italy where the Giro is the big event of the year, although it is not nearly at the same media-hype level of the Tour. Interest in the Giro is mostly in Italy. Before the ProTour, the Giro roster was made up mostly of small Italian teams with some International teams throw in. Many of the smaller teams basically built their year around the Giro and would often race in the top level Italian events. This emphasis on the Giro, and consequently lower budget teams worked out much better for the development of cycling. There are more grassroots teams and a better developed/healthier amateur events. In essence, the sponsorship money is spread to all levels of cycling. This helps to nurture much more interest in the lower levels and helps to get amateurs out into the pro level. This is made easier since there are several smaller sized teams to choose from that have decent budgets and entry into the top Italian races. Now that this changed with the ProTour, there are still many small continental teams that can help nuture riders in Italy. Teams such as Naturino, LPR, Tenax,etc. are where some of the next Italian champions come from. The unfortunate part is that they do not have the large budgets to move to the next level. A team like Naturino previosuly could entr several top level races and not only in Italy. This would give some young riders a taste of the top level and help their development. Once a rider got good results, they would move up to a bigger budget team. No most riders need to ride as support on a big budget team, and may not have as much chance tobe team leader on a smaller team. Just imagine, years ago a young Gilberto Simoni showed class in the 1999 Giro, and subsequently was signed to bugger budget Lampre the following year. Simoni would not have had the same showcase for his talent today because his smaller Ballan team would not be riding the Giro.
So, my idea is to reduce the madatory number of ProTour teams to possible 16 or 18 and allow more wildcard teams to participate in the top events. This reduce the amount of pack-filler teams such as AG2R and Credit Agricole, by not requiring them to compete in races that are of no interest to their team or sponsor. This would then allow more of the smaller teams that build their year around specific races to animate and entertain. Plus, they can introduce fans to an upcoming star that will sign on for a bigger team the following year.