Paris-Nice is over, and with it ends the early-season audition period for the 2010 Tour de France wildcard hopefuls.



With six spots expected to be announced at the end of March, it’s now a nervous wait for the teams hoping for a place on the start-line in Rotterdam.



Who’s definitely riding?

Under the existing agreement between the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) from September 2008, 16 ProTour teams are guaranteed a spot at the race – including Cofidis and Bbox Bouygues Telecom, who have since lost their top-tier status.



The only deal-breaker would be an ‘ethical violation’ – a doping-related problem, in other words.



The permutations

However, it might not be quite as simple as that. ASO and UCI have never been the happiest of bedfellows. In fact, more like the couple next door who break things and have loud arguments at four in the morning.



Christian Prudhomme

Tour director Christian Prudhomme is the man with the final say



So, in the event of the Tour organisers audaciously going in their own direction, CW can see ProTour lightweights Footon-Servetto-Fuji being first to be booted from the Tour party.





In cleaning up their act in an attempt to erase memories of Piepoli, Ricco and Mayo’s past positives as former incarnation Saunier Duval, their roster now consists solely of inexperienced, young riders.



More tellingly, they haven’t been invited to ASO-organised races Paris-Nice or Paris-Roubaix this spring.



Euskaltel-Euskadi are also on thin ice. Not only is their line-up weak, but the Mikel Astarloza positive doping test from last year’s Tour could have a serious bearing on their participation.



Star quality

The likes of Team Sky, Garmin-Transitions, Cervelo Test Team and RadioShack may be outside the UCI-ASO agreement, but with their big names and good results, their places on the start line in Rotterdam are all but a formality.



With Prudhomme expected to announce six wildcard picks – a 22-team start list would be the most since 2003 – as opposed to three last year, they have avoided a scrap for the last few tickets.



In effect, that leaves two spots for five teams to fight over.



Katusha and BMC Racing Team are slight favourites, but they could be surprised after a fighting early-season display from Vacansoleil, who are desperate for a Tour start in their home country.



Skil-Shimano and Saur Sojasun can’t be discounted either, but their chances will be greatly increased by one of the “guaranteed” ProTour sixteen being omitted.



ON THE PLANE (16)


Ag2r La Mondiale

Astana

Bbox Bouygues Telecom

Caisse d’Epargne

Cofidis

Euskaltel*

Footon-Servetto-Fuji*

Francaise des Jeux

HTC Columbia

Lampre

Liquigas-Doimo

Milram

Omega Pharma-Lotto

Quick Step

Rabobank

Saxo Bank



*Possible omissions



DEAD CERTS (4)

RadioShack

Stars:
Lance Armstrong, Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer

Tour pedigree: Having a seven-time winner on board is pedigree enough, let alone two other past podium finishers.

Early season: Haven’t set the world alight, but RadioShack has been a steady presence at the forefront of races. The Armstrong effect has helped.

Chances: 10/10. The strongest provisional Tour de France team cannot be overlooked.



Garmin-Transitions

Stars: Christian Vande Velde, Tyler Farrar

Tour pedigree: Vande Velde and Wiggins have delivered revelatory performances in the past two years. Good relations with press and ASO, thanks to their super-clean ethos. Farrar was, to coin a term of measurement, a Cavendish away from Tour stage victory in last year.

Early season: Slow-burning; a few wins for Hunter in Murcia.

Chances: 10/10. With their clean reputation and team strength, they’re shoe-ins.



Team Sky, Tour of Qatar 2010, stage 4

After an impressive early season, Sky can be confident of a Tour start.



Team Sky

Stars:
Bradley Wiggins, Edvald Boasson Hagen

Tour pedigree: None. Wiggins broke through to finish fourth last year with Garmin, and is now bidding to be Britain’s first Tour de France winner.

Early season: Have showed that they mean business, competitive across the board with wins in Het Nieuwsblad, Paris-Nice and TDU. Clean ‘marginal gain’ ethos must also win brownie points.

Chances: 9/10. They tick all the boxes.



Cervelo Test Team

Stars:
Thor Hushovd, Carlos Sastre, Heinrich Haussler

Tour pedigree: Can boast last year’s green jersey winner and the 2008 Tour winner. Beat that.

Early season: Not nearly as impressive as last year, but then they didn’t need to wow ASO this time round. Haussler came close in Qatar and Het Nieuwsblad.

Chances: 8/10. Earned their spot last July when Hushovd took the green jersey.



SWEATING IT OUT

Katusha


Stars: Filippo Pozzato, Robbie McEwen, Kim Kirchen

Tour pedigree: Ivanov saved their blushes with an opportunistic stage win in the Tour last year. Robbie McEwen has been one of the race’s top sprinters for ten years. Outside of their sporting performance, Antonio Colom’s EPO positive could yet count against them.

Early season: There or thereabouts with sprinters Napolitano and McEwen. Two wins.

Chances: 7/10. Have got the all-round quality to make it, but another doping positive will be their undoing.



BMC Racing Team

Stars: Cadel Evans, Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie

Tour pedigree: Never ridden a Grand Tour. Evans has twice been second and worn the yellow jersey, while Hincapie is a race stalwart.

Early season: Unconvincing, unless your initial argument was “who do they have apart from Evans, Ballan and Hincapie?” A few attacks in Australia and Tirreno aside, lack of spring results and ominous absence from Paris-Nice could see the team omitted. Evans has even talked about targeting the Giro.

Chances: 6/10. Lacks strength in depth. Surely the Tour organisers can’t exclude the world champion’s team…



Vacansoleil

Stars: Feillu brothers

Tour pedigree: Never ridden the Tour.  Took last year’s Vuelta opportunity well, with a stage win from Borut Bozic and were prominent in ASO-backed Paris-Tours too.

Early season: The Dutch squad could hardly have hoped for a better start to the season, winning four times, including the Tour of Qatar and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with unknowns Wouter Mol and Bobbie Traksel. In case you didn’t notice the glaring Vacansoleil banners and signs, they even backed Paris-Nice.

Chances: 5/10. Dutch, in the results, on the attack and even endorsing an ASO race, they’re in the ascendancy. They even boast the Feillu brothers, who are fast becoming the favourites of French housewives.

Saur-Sojasun

Star:
Jimmy Casper

Tour pedigree:
New team, though Casper nabbed a Tour stage win with Agritubel.

Early
season:
Decent. Wins at the GP Ouverture, a
stage in Oman and attacks galore have kept their name in the frame, as
has their gaudy jersey.

Chances: 4/10. Lack quality compared
to the rest, but being an all-French team counts for a lot.

Skil-Shimano

Star: Kenny van Hummel

Tour pedigree: Got in escapes last year, but became just as notorious for misfortune. Half the team hit the deck in the TTT and heavy-set van Hummel became a star for soldiering on as lanterne rouge in the mountains.

Early season: Just one win to speak of, they haven’t shown much where it matters.

Chances: 3/10. Not as visible or canny as Vacansoleil, but may benefit from Dutch links.



SORRY, NO CHANCE


Bretagne-Schuller

ISD Neri

Xacobeo

Acqua & Sapone


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