Giro d’Italia technical director Mauro Vegni has explained that RCS Sport has awarded three of its four wildcard invitation to home-based teams in order to support Italian cycling, just as Tour de France organisers ASO have favoured French teams in years gone by.
Androni-Venezuela were already guaranteed a Giro berth as winners of the 2013 Coppa Italia, a measure introduced by former race director Angelo Zomegnan to safeguard the interests of Italian teams. The three remaining wildcards were announced on Thursday, with Colombia joined by Italian squads YellowFluo-Neri Sottoli and Bardiani-CSF.
“We have obligations to help and support the Italian cycling movement, a bit like ASO have done in the past by giving wildcards to French teams. The philosophy is the same,” Vegni told Cyclingnews on Thursday. “Italy is experiencing a very difficult moment. In the past, this was one of the leading nations of this sport. It still is, but with many more difficulties, so we felt that this step we’ve taken to support the teams could also help and support the whole of Italian cycling.”
The decision to select YellowFluo-Neri Sottoli has met with some criticism given that the team – then called Vini Fantini-Selle Italia – had Mauro Santambrogio and Danilo Di Luca test positive for EPO at last year’s Giro. Ultimately, however, RCS Sport was swayed by the YellowFluo pledge to publish its riders’ blood values online and, perhaps as tellingly, by fears that the team would not survive beyond 2014 without a ride at the Giro.
“We can’t forget what’s gone before, but they are undergoing significant change, and have brought in some new people into the management, like [Stefano] Garzelli [who tested positive in the pink jersey at the 2002 Giro – ed.], and are presenting a new image of themselves,” Vegni said. “They also have sponsors who, if the team wasn’t at the Giro d’Italia, might move on to other sports instead.”
It seems that the team’s decision to hand back its invitation to last year’s Tour of Lombardy as a token of good faith did not go unnoticed in Milan, nor did the fact that the team had signed Di Luca at the express request of its sponsor.
“Now the sponsor has changed, the team has changed and they’re looking to create a new image built around younger riders,” Vegni said. “They’ve set up a development team bearing the name of Franco Ballerini and they’ve joined the MPCC. They’re changing radically and that certainly helped us with our choice.”
Internationalization still a priority
Although the wildcards for this year’s Giro are ultimately the same as in 2013, RCS Sport’s explicit tying of the choice to its commitment Italian cycling seems to mark a break with former race director Michele Acquarone’s policy of internationalization. Acquarone was a proponent of the MTN-Qhubeka team’s merits, in particular, but he was among those removed from their position late last year following an investigation into the alleged misappropriation of €10 million from the RCS accounts.
“Internationalization is the primary objective of the Giro, but internationalization isn’t just about riders and teams, it’s also about the places the race visits,” Vegni told Cyclingnews. “This year, we have an international project with the start in Ireland. And what’s more, internationalization isn’t confined to the Giro. At Tirreno-Adriatico, for instance, we’ve invited only one Italian team [Bardiani] and three foreign ones [MTN, NetApp-Endura and IAM Cycling].”
Under Acquarone’s brief stewardship, RCS Sport had enacted a five-man wildcard commission, which held a vote to decide on how to distribute the invitations. Given that Acquarone’s replacement Paolo Bellino only took up his post on Monday, however, this year’s wildcard decision was reached by consensus rather than by commission.
“There was a discussion within the company on the suitability or otherwise of these choices,” Vegni said of the decision-making process. “There is no longer a commission but there was a consultation with the heads of the company.”
While RCS Sport announced the wildcard invitations for each of its WorldTour events – the Giro, Milan-San Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Lombardy – on Thursday, it will not name the teams for Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima for another month, when alterations to the route of Strade Bianche will also be unveiled.
“The Strade Bianche teams will be announced around the middle of February, when we will hold a press conference because we have some announcements to make too about changes to the route,” Vegni said. “There will be some nice novelties for both of those races.”