The International Cycling Union's so called "World Calendar" resumes this weekend with the 68th edition of Paris-Nice, one of 10 races with the "Historic" designation. Paris-Nice will be not only an important test for teams and riders, but also an audition in front of the organiser, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) which also puts on the sport's biggest event of the year, the Tour de France.
There are 16 teams guaranteed a place in the Tour de France, but the unique arrangement for Historic races leaves ProTour teams Garmin-Transitions, Katusha, Sky and RadioShack battling it out with the wild card Professional Continental teams for the 4-6 open spots.
With Tour director Christian Prudhomme tipping Team Radioshack as a nearly assured invite, Garmin, Sky, Cervélo, Skil-Shimano, Saur-Sojasun, Vacansoleil, all of whom will compete in Paris-Nice, and the team of World Champion Cadel Evans, BMC, who chose to race in Tirreno-Adriatico instead, are some of the prime contenders for the remaining positions.
The performance of each team is not the only consideration: the Tour organisers are sticklers for teams with a strong anti-doping ethic, but politics can also come into play when it comes time to set the final start list.
BMC Director John Lelangue insists that the team has not jeopardized their chances for a Tour invite by skipping Paris-Nice in favour of Tirreno-Adriatico.
Prudhomme himself indicated that one big name rider isn't enough to win the team an invite, perhaps directing his comments at the BMC squad and its leader Cadel Evans. "I can't promise anything," Prudhomme said last month. "Some teams stand on an individual and if one of them gets injured and can't participate in the Tour, the presence of the whole team would be less evident."
Lelangue countered that by saying his squad is not built around one rider, that in addition to Evans, a two-time Tour runner-up, they have riders who have won stages like George Hincapie, Marcus Burghardt and Karsten Kroon.
"I wanted to be fair with Prudhomme and I made it clear from the start last fall that we would not be a candidate for Paris-Nice because I prefer to put one strong team all together," Lelangue told Cyclingnews. "Tirreno-Adriatico is important for our preparation for the Giro d'Italia, as is the Eroica which begins one day before Paris-Nice.
"I do not think this decision will be a detriment to our selection, and I am confident that the group we are putting together for the Tour de France will earn us an invitation."
The other contenders
Team Sky's formidable roster and wins in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and stages of Tour of Oman, Qatar and the Tour Down Under have likely pushed them to top of the wild card heap alongside Team RadioShack.
Garmin-Transitions has also been putting on a good show, with two wins in this week's Vuelta Murcia by Robbie Hunter and several podium places by its main sprinter Tyler Farrar. A strong showing by the American team's GC contenders could push it over the top, leaving just three more slots open for the 2010 Tour de France.
Katusha are sending a team to Paris-Nice with hopes for Alexander Kolobnev, the runner up to Cadel Evans in the Worlds and Sergei Ivanov as its aggressors, but it will have to put on a good show after a lacklustre start to the season.
Saur-Sojasun has an advantage as a French team with a 100 percent French roster, an aggressive racing style as well as a strong performance in last year's European Tour where Jimmy Casper placed third. They would be a logical pick for the ASO which has historically leaned toward teams from its own country for the wild card spots.
That leaves 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre's Cervélo team in a tighter spot than they were last year at this time. Sports Director Philippe Mauduit knows an overall victory in Paris-Nice is a long shot for his team, so he will be sending a team of opportunists in hopes of repeating the team's stage win of last year.
"We will try to go for a stage win and see what we can do in the GC. For that we're looking to Joaquín Novoa and probably Xavier Tondo to do something. While they will probably not be able to go for the win, they will certainly go for the best possible placement. For the flatter stages we have our sprinter, Heinrich Haussler, who won the second stage in last year's edition."
The Vacansoleil team has been putting on a fine show all season so far, netting a victory in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, a stage of Tour of Qatar and two stages of Etoile de Bessèges. For Director Hilaire Van Der Schueren, the results speak for themselves, and he doesn't see the need to alter his game for Paris-Nice. "We have already shown enough, we will ride our own race. We don't have a team for one week of the year, we must shine at all times," he told ANP.
Skil-Shimano hasn't had as much luck so far, its best placing was a second in a stage of Ruta del Sol by Robert Wagner, but director Merijn Zeeman said the team caught the eye of Prudhomme last year with its aggressive racing style and he hopes the addition of several talented French riders will sweeten the deal.
"[Paris-Nice] is a key race for the Tour, and we will do everything we can. Everyone is aware of the situation, but it is not our biggest motivation."
History complicates the mystery of Tour invites
The mystery of how the Tour invitations work is further complicated by the new World Calendar rules. Born out of a long-running dispute between the UCI and the Grand Tour organisers, the calendar combines the ProTour races with the Historic events put on by the ASO, Giro d'Italia organiser RCS Sport and Vuelta Espana promoter Unipublic.
The Historic classification sets these races apart not only by status but also by rules governing which teams are invited to participate in the events. Unlike the ProTour events, which must include all ProTour teams, the Historic races, under a September, 2008 agreement, restrict the automatic entries to the teams with valid ProTour licenses on the date of the accord.
So defending Tour de France winner Alberto Contador and his Astana team have nothing to worry about, neither do HTC-Columbia and green jersey hopeful Mark Cavendish, Saxo Bank and contender Andy Schleck and, providing the courts fail to extend his ban in Italy worldwide, presumably the team of Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d'Epargne.
The French teams AG2R La Mondiale, Cofidis, Française des Jeux and Bbox Bouygues Telecom are safe, as are Euskaltel - Euskadi, Footon-Servetto, Lampre-Farnese Vini, Liquigas-Doimo, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Quick Step, Rabobank and Team Milram, all provided that they can avoid any "ethical" scandals which would free the ASO up to rescind their invite.
Race director Christian Prudhomme will be making his final selection for the Tour de France "in early Spring", he said last month, giving the rest of the teams little time to prove their worthiness for the sport's most important race.