This week, French cycling federation president David Lappartient made a proposal to have future Tours de France contested by national teams, rather than trade teams. The plan was immediately dismissed by race organizer ASO, but Lappartient, 39, who called his suggestion “a revolutionary project,” sees it as part of an overall plan to update the structure of professional cycling. If nothing else, the suggestion does show how the sport has exploded globally since national teams were last seen at the Tour.
All the Tours from 1930 to 1961 used a national-team format, as did those in 1967 and ’68. But in the context of today’s more complex cycling scene—where Grand Tours start in countries as diverse as Britain, Denmark and Ireland, and where the UCI WorldTour has extended from its European base to Australia, Canada and China—a truly global Tour de France is a much different prospect than it was 45 years ago.
That last national-team Tour, in 1968, won by Dutchman Jan Janssen, saw riders from only nine countries on the start list. The French had three teams (A, B and C), each of 10 riders; the Belgians had two teams (A and B) of 10; Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain each had one team of 10; and the 13th team in the 130-rider field was made up of six Swiss and four Luxembourgers.
By comparison, the 198-strong field at last year’s Tour de France consisted of 22 trade teams made up of riders from 31 countries; and the field for the 2012 world elite men’s road championship featured 48 nations, with 15 of them having teams of at least six riders each. In other words, the elite rider pool has expanded exponentially since 1968, and so, in theory, there would be no problems in assembling Lappartient’s dream of 25 teams of eight riders per team to contest a future Tour.
This would be the breakdown of the 25 teams:
• The top 10 nations in the UCI world rankings
• A guaranteed slot for the home nation, France
• A team from Scandinavia (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden)
• A team from the Balkans (including Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia)
• Teams from each continent (America, Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania)
• The top-ranked nation from each continent
• Two or three wild-card teams
For countries not strong enough to field a full eight-man team, Lappartient suggested that rider such as Luxembourg’s Andy and Fränk Schleck would be included in the Europe continental squad.
If such a plan were to ever move ahead, it would need the buy-in of not only ASO, but also the other stakeholders, including the UCI, the teams and their sponsors, along with the television networks that cover the Tour. Commenting on the proposal Thursday, ASO director general Christian Prudhomme said, “I want to confirm we’re sticking with trade teams even though in the past Jacques Goddet, the Tour’s iconic patron, frequently proposed a return to national teams.”
Indeed, the French federation president’s new plan is not hugely different from a similar proposal by former race director Goddet, who was also the first major figure in cycling to talk about the sport’s “mondialisation” (or globalization). Goddet suggested in 1982 that his “Tour mondial” would have teams from 20 countries, and he’d align it with the world’s largest global events, the Olympic Games and soccer’s World Cup, by staging a national-team Tour every fourth year—while trade teams would contest the Tour in the other three years of the cycle.
Goddet said the reason for his suggestion was to both popularize the Tour in many more countries and avoid the monotony of the same teams dominating the race every year. In the dozen years between the last national-team Tour in 1968 and his 1982 suggestion, Goddet argued that the Tour had become monotonous because of the five victories of Eddy Merckx between 1969 and 1974, and the four wins by Bernard Hinault from 1978 to 1982—both of those champion being aided by overwhelmingly powerful trade teams made up of the top riders from different countries.
A similar argument could be made today, following two decades in which Miguel Induráin (and his Banesto team) took five straight wins in the 1990s, followed by the seven-Tour streak by Lance Armstrong (and his U.S. Postal/Discovery Channel team)—whose results have been stricken from the record for doping. Last year, of course, another squad, Britain’s Team Sky, dominated the Tour in supporting its 1-2 finishers, Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome.
It was in reference to Sky’s quasi-national team that Prudhomme said, “There are trade teams today that resemble national selections. So, for me, the return to national teams is a bit of a tired subject. It was tremendous [when national teams existed], but I’m not convinced that it’s a solution for the future.”
That may be the verdict of the current Tour boss, but a poll of almost 4,000 readers on the L’Équipe Web site this week showed that the public favors national teams over trade teams by a 69- to 31-percent margin. Also, Lappartient believes that changing the Tour’s format would “increase the worldwide audience by 20 to 40 percent and boost the TV rights fees. I bet that making the Tour for national teams will make cycling a world sport, and all the other races will benefit from the increased popularity.”
The French federation president said he would be making a presentation of his ideas to the UCI, which could consider his plan as part of the ongoing modifications that the world’s governing body is considering this year. Clearly, the current roster of UCI ProTeams, which enjoy automatic participation in the Tour, will be against Lappartient’s proposal because the Tour is the big carrot that attracts their title sponsors. But maybe Goddet’s 1982 proposal of having a national-team Tour every fourth year is not as unfeasible as it sounds.
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