Wild Cards, Wild Choices

After endless tweets urging us to vote for our wild card selections for the 2014 Giro, RCS have released the names of the lucky 3 who will line up in Belfast in May. And, surprise, surprise, they’re all Italian.

I don’t have a huge problem with this in itself – I’ve always been of the opinion that, in a national Tour, the organisers have every right to let their lower division squads gain experience of riding in the toughest races. After all, how else do you blood your developing riders? The Vuelta and the Tour both show similar national bias when selecting the wild card teams.

What is problematic is the lack of transparency in the procedure, the presence of ‘doping’ teams in the selection pool and the sheer arbitrariness of selecting wild cards at all. After all, there’s no incentive for a team like IAM Cycling or MTN to make an effort to be competitive when they lose out on a place to an Italian team with a string of positives in its past incarnation (yes, I’m looking at you Yellow Fluo).

I asked Michele Acquarone, recently deposed Giro director, how the wild cards for the Giro were selected under his leadership. “In my two years as director of the Giro I did not choose the wild cards by myself, I wanted them to be selected by a 5 people commission (within RCS: the CEO at RCS Sport, the head of the sport and technical cycling, the head of the marketing cycling, a journalist from La Gazzetta dello Sport and myself), all with equal voting power. I thought and I still think this is the  proper procedure to limit arbitrariness and be sure that a single person can no suffer and succumb to pressures (including economic pressure and corruption).” But what about the selection of Italian teams? “About the wild card dedicated to the best Italian team I have no regrets. I’m glad I signed that agreement with the Italian Cycling Federation to give the right prize to the best Italian team along the Italian season. I believe It’s good to help reviving the Italian Cup and it’s good because it respects the sports values. Easy and simple. I win and I’m rewarded. In football the team that wins the Serie A, the year after it plays the Champions League. In cycling the team that wins the Coppa Italia, the year after it rides the Giro.”

I get this, and think it’s a good model to incentivise national teams to get a ride in their home Tour. But what of widely expressed disquiet from fans that their wishes weren’t respected in the wild card selection – after all, for a more international audience, IAM Cycling and MTN were the 2 teams fans wanted to see at this year’s Giro.  So who would have made the decisions? ” Who did choose? Did they use a commission or just one man took the decision? Why pretend to interact with fans if you don’t listen to them. Is that a joke? Fans are no stupid. You cannot play with fans because you’re gonna lose them.  They are not clear, everything suggests that it’s back to the old style RCS.”

The old style RCS? “When I speak about the old style I speak about the Zomegnan time when he had control over (almost) everything about cycling at RCS. And that was the reason for the total incompatibility between us. I wanted to play as a team. he would not accept meddling in “his” business. I could not accept it.”

Acquarone felt that his colleagues would have chosen Bardiani, Colombia and MTN. So what went wrong?  How did Yellow Fluo get the nod when, in their previous incarnation as Vini Fantini-Selle Italia both Danilo Di Luca and Mauro Santambrogio tested positive for EPO at the Giro? “I do not understand and what they did with wild cards is definitely not logical. How can you leave the MTN out and let the ex-Fantini in?” In a statement RCS Sport said: “The choices made, especially for the wild cards of the Giro d’Italia, were dictated by the opportunity – at this moment in history – to support the Italian cycling movement, without ever losing sight of the goal of international development.”

There is a mechanism in place to exclude a team from a race – the UCI road race regulation 2.2.010 talks of exclusion if a team ‘blemishes the image of cycling’ – but now may be the time to revisit this. If a team ‘blemishes the image of cycling’ by recording doping positives in a race then what if they’re declared ineligible to ride that race the following year – and ineligible for selection as a wild card? Clearly it’s not foolproof – it may incentivise teams to try and sweep any wrongdoing under the carpet – but the current rule is both toothless and mired in red tape.

But why does the sport award wild cards at all? Has there ever been the announcement of wild card picks that wasn’t met with groans of disbelief from some fans, whoops of delight from others? The process of awarding wild cards is, ultimately, entirely arbitrary in that it’s in the gift of RCS or ASO or Unipublic – when ASO excluded Unibet from its races in 2007 for falling foul of France’s strictly regulated betting laws, they were happy to award wild cards to Astana because of their ‘sporting value’ – Astana were forced to withdraw from that year’s Tour when Vinokourov failed a dope test. Interestingly, though ASO then denied Astana entry to their races the following year on ‘ethical grounds’, Rabobank and Cofidis – similarly mired in doping scandals – were at the races. Decisions like this are a reminder that so many of the choices made in cycling – to grant World Tour licences and wild cards and classifications to races – appear both opaque and entirely arbitrary.

Acquarone argues passionately for a “‘fil rouge’, a WT model with a screenplay and a drama to involve fans (to attract new light fans, fortunately hard fans are already always involved) along the whole season. A model with classifications and rankings focused on sport performances with no arbitrariness. Cycling and cycling fans deserve much more.”

Wild cards are part of the uneasy truce between race organisers and the UCI – a nod to the old days when ASO and RCS and Unipublic could invite who they damned well chose because after all it was their race. Like so much in cycling, wild cards are a fudge and a compromise in a sport that lacks clarity in its calendar and transparency in the way it makes its decisions. Conversely, there is an argument that smaller teams often bring excitement to the big races, driven as they are to make an impact on the big stage whilst some of the teams awarded automatic entry are content to bump along mid peloton doing just enough to keep their World Tour licences. But what the Giro selection highlights is that, as long as wild cards are part of the procycling scene, the choice of those wild cards must be seen to be non arbitrary, transparent and completely defensible. Yes, Yellow Fluo, I’m looking at you.

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2 thoughts on “Wild Cards, Wild Choices

  1. Let’s not forget that this is business, they’ll get over a few fans moaning on twitter if inviting a dirty italian team is going to be more profitable.

    Oh, and Acquarone is, perhaps, not the most impartial person to ask about the working of RCS.

    • Acquarone was the director when the race was planned – maybe the new team stuck to his method of selecting wild cards and still thought Yellow Fluo were the right team to invite. The bigger issue is around the existence of wild cards at all – maybe it’s time to move to a larger number of teams with smaller squads riding in a Division 1 from which they can get relegated at season’s end. I’m interested to see what Cookson comes up with in his drive to modernise the sport/clarify the calendar

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