Wild card selections have been made: Tyler and Mario are in.
Maybe Mario will finish? Maybe not! Who will win the sprint to the team car Pettachi or Cipollini?
The Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), organiser of the Tour de France, announced Friday afternoon seven teams selected as 'wildcards' for the 2004 Tour. Per new UCI regulations, all eight wildcards must be announced by March 1, rather than the previous selection of four teams in early spring and the remainder in May. The top 14 teams in the UCI rankings qualify automatically. This year only 21 teams will contest the Tour, one fewer than the customary 22.
Among the Tour contenders and team leaders waiting for selection, Tyler Hamilton and Oscar Sevilla (Phonak), Joseba Beloki (Brioches La Boulangère), Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole), and... Mario Cipollini (Domina Vacanze) have all received their ticket to the Grande Boucle.
Most notable, perhaps, is the decision this year to invite Cipollini's Domina Vacanze team. Even forgetting the great debate which surrounded the team's non-invitation to the centenary Tour in 2003, the fact that Domina Vacanze dropped to Division II this year offered little hope of a selection in what is almost certainly Cipollini's final year as a professional. The Tour de France has typically been reserved for Division I teams, but clearly Jean-Marie Leblanc and his colleagues have decided to tip their hat to Cipollini by inviting the team. This will be Cipo's first Tour since 1999.
Along the same lines, the Comunidad Valenciana-Kelme team will be forced to sit out the Tour this year, as it too was downgraded to Division II this season. Despite a strong start to the season, with several victories already in the bag for Alejandro Valverde, Kelme did not claim a place next to Domina Vacanze.
Not surprisingly, four of the seven wildcards chosen are French teams. Leblanc and the Tour have remained steadfast in their desire to see national teams well represented, and France, with six teams, will once more field the most teams.
While Ag2r, La Boulangère and Crédit Agricole were safe bets, the selection of the newly formed RAGT Semences-MG Rover team shows a bit more discretionary decision-making on the part of ASO. Formed from the remnants of Jean Delatour, RAGT is an ambitious but unproven entity, as most of its top riders left the team in the midst of the uncertainty of 2003.
US Postal Service presented by Berry Floor
Brioches la Boulangère
Phonak Hearing Systems
RAGT Semences-MG Rover
Breakdown by nation:
France - 6
Italy - 4
Spain - 3
Belgium - 2
Germany - 2
Switzerland - 1
Denmark - 1
Netherlands - 1
United States - 1