Christian Prudhomme has acknowledged that the arrival of Vital Concept Club had made selecting wild cards for the Tour de France more difficult than in previous years, but the race director expressed confidence that ASO has selected the four most worthy candidates for this year's Grande Boucle.
ASO announced the invitations on Monday afternoon, with the four wild cards from the 2017 race all earning selection once again, as French squads Direct Energie, Team Fortuneo-Samsic and Cofidis joined by Belgian Pro Continental outfit Wanty-Groupe Gobert. They will join the 18 WorldTour teams in the 2018 Tour peloton.
The decision means that the newly established Vital Concept squad, managed by Jerome Pineau and led by Bryan Coquard, will miss out on the Tour in their inaugural season in the peloton. Coquard was previously left out of the Direct Energie line-up for the 2017 Tour after declining to extend his contract with the team.
"I'm sorry for a rider like Bryan Coquard, just like I was sorry for his absence last year," Prudhomme told AFP.
"The selection was more complicated than in previous years. In France alone, there are five Second Division [Pro Continental – ed.] teams going for four places on the Tour."
ASO has repeatedly voiced its opposition to a closed system during talks over reforms of the UCI WorldTour in recent years, and Prudhomme was careful to point out that two of the four wildcards had been allocated to Pro Contintental teams who finished top of the Europe Tour rankings in 2017.
"We're taking the first two of the Second Division: Wanty-Groupe Gobert and Cofidis," Prudhomme said. "Cofidis were second in the second division and we pay attention to these rankings, as in any sport. We have advocated an open system, where teams can go up and down. We want to help the top performers of the second division.
"We also want to give another chance to Nacer Bouhanni, who won stages at the Vuelta a Espana, the Giro d'Italia, the Dauphiné and Paris-Nice but never at the Tour. Cofidis are conscious that they need a new impetus, and that's why Cédric Vasseur has arrived as manager."
Wanty-Groupe Gobert fielded a team composed entirely of debutants in the 2017 Tour and all nine of its riders reached Paris, with the French youngster Guillaume Martin placing 23rd overall after a string of strong displays in the mountains. The philosophy graduate also drew attention for his thoughtful column in French newspaper Le Monde.
"The Wanty-Gobert riders performed very well at the Tour, with a big presence in the breakaways but also with 14th place in the team classification, which was more than respectable," Prudhomme said. "They also have talented young French climber Guillaume Martin in their team. He is interesting in more than one way."
Despite the retirement of fan favourite Thomas Voeckler, Direct Energie's place was never in any doubt, with the Tour set to get underway from their home region of the Vendée on July 7. Jean-René Bernaudeau's squad also claimed a stage win on last year's Tour thanks to the aggressive Lilian Calmejane's solo effort at Les Rousses.
Prudhomme acknowledged that the Tour's crossing of Brittany ultimately influenced the decision to award a wild card to Fortuneo-Samsic. In truth, the Breton team's signing of 2017 king of the mountains Warren Barguil – who also won two stages and the combativity prize, and placed 10th overall – meant that their invitation was hardly in doubt.
"This regional attraction also exists for Fortuneo-Samsic. It's going to be the first time in 10 years that we visit each Breton department," Prudhomme said. "Of course, the team's biggest strength is its new leader Warren Barguil. He is a super fighter and brings a breath of fresh air."
Prudhomme wished the Vital Concept project well but pointed out they were a brand new team in 2018. Although ASO has often given priority to French teams over the years, it has also shied away of selecting Pro Continental teams in their first year of existence. Prudhomme cited the example of the Skil team – now Sunweb – and Fortuneo-Samsic, who grew away from the spotlight before earning Tour invitations.
"I hope that Vital Concept quickly become successful. It's their first year; they're developing and building step by step. They need to show a little patience rather than impatience," Prudhomme said. "We like projects that grow up little by little. We've seen that with Skil and Bora, who we helped to grow, and we're seeing it with Fortuneo-Samsic."
Vital Concept and France's other Pro Continental team Delko-Marseille have been given the consolation prize of a ride in one of ASO's other major stage races. Delko will join Cofidis, Direct Energie and Fortuneo-Samsic at Paris-Nice, while Vital Concept will line out at the Critérium du Dauphiné with Cofidis, Wanty-Groupe Gobert and Fortuneo-Samsic.
"We have a kind of moral agreement with the (French) National Cycling League so that each second division can develop, and take part in either Pairs-Nice, the Criterium du Dauphine or the Tour," Prudhomme said. "Delko-Marseille Provence will be at Paris-Nice and Vital Concept at the Dauphiné."