Coquard and Vital Concept made to sweat over final Tour de France wildcard

Bryan Coquard has a nervous wait on his hands as he faces the prospect of missing out on the Tour de France for a second year in succession. According to French sports newspaper L'Equipe, the wildcards for the Tour will be decided in a month's time and, with a surfeit of eligible candidates, Coquard's new Vital Concept team look most likely to miss out. 

Each year the ASO hands out four wildcard invitations for second division teams, and in 2018 there are seemingly six in the running: Cofidis, Direct Energie, Fortuneo-Oscaro, Delko-Marseille Provence KTM, Vital Concept, and Wanty-Groupe Gobert (the only non-French outfit).

Cofidis and Direct Energie have longstanding relationships with the Tour and are pretty much shoe-ins for 2018 - with star riders in Nacer Bouhanni and Lilian Calmejane respectively - as are Fortuneo-Oscaro, who have raced the past four editions and now have the 2017 king of the mountains, Warren Barguil.

The fourth slot looks less certain. It is unlikely to go to Delko, leaving a scrap between the Belgian Wanty-Groupe Gobert and newcomers Vital Concept. Logic may dictate that the ASO would lean towards Vital Concept, a thoroughly French team created by former pro Jerome Pineau and spearheaded by a talent like Coquard. 

However, Wanty stood out on their debut in 2017, animating breakaways and finishing 14th in the teams classification. The French connection is there also, with sponsors from Wallonia - the French-speaking region of Belgium - and a base near the border, while their leader is the promising Frenchman Guillaume Martin, who finished third on the stage to Station des Rousses this year and fifth in the young rider classification.

"We deserve our place," said team manager Jean-Francois Boulart, according to L'Equipe. "[Race director] Christian Prudhomme has always said that he wouldn't take a team that had just been created - that they must first prove themselves. I hope that's the case for 2018, even if, for him, it's not an easy decision."

The danger for Coquard and Vital Concept is that they won't have the chance to prove themselves in time, with the final decision to be made at the end of January. Coquard is due to make his season debut at the Sharjah Tour from January 24-27. 

"It's important for teams to plan their seasons - we're not going to wait until March to decide," said route director Thierry Gouvenou, according to L'Equipe, notably using the example of Wanty having an average start to the season before having a strong Tour de France and then finishing the year top of the team standings of the season-long Europe Tour.

Earlier this month Coquard said it would be "unthinkable" not doing the Tour. "If we're good in the opening races, and behind the scenes we work hard at it, then we'll have all the cards in our hands to be invited to the Tour," he said. "I'm telling myself that we're going to perform, we're going to win races quickly, that everyone will put in 200 per cent, and that things will gather pace."

Coquard's talents are already well-known to the ASO, the young Frenchman having come a hair's width from winning a stage in 2016. However, Prudhomme already hinted at the possible inclusion of Wanty at the presentation of the route for the 2018 Tour in October.

"We've always defended French cycling but you shouldn't think that each team has its own reserved place," he said. "Wanty-Groupe Gobert were excellent in 2017 and then they have a French rider, Guillaume Martin, who is interesting from all points of view and who won at La Rosière in the Tour de l'Avenir in 2015," he added, with the same summit finish to be used in the 2018 edition of the Tour. 

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