When the wildcard invitations for the Tour de France were announced the only surprise was the timing, who predicted 11.04am on 18 January? We knew already Lotto-Dstny and Israel-Premiertech qualified automatically. The elective picks went to Uno-X and TotalEnergies, same as last year. No surprise but for these two teams, especially the latter, invitations could be hard to come by next time.
Total Energies goes back to 2000 when Jean-René Bernaudeau took his successful U-23 team and built a pro team. They’ve ridden the Tour de France every year. It started as Bonjour, backed by a classifieds newspaper about to get eaten by the internet. It went to Brioches Boulangères, Bouygues Telecom, Europcar (pictured) and Direct Energie. Total Energies was accidental because Direct Energie was an electricity supplier that got bought by French oil major Total: it bought the company and found it had a cycling team. This partly explains why the cycling team today might be sponsored by one of the biggest companies in the world – among quoted companies it is the 85th biggest by market value at the time of typing – yet it has a second division team.
So far, so good. A team that’s been on the road for a quarter of a century, backed by a stable company but this is where the troubles come because the past doesn’t guarantee the future. This year it scraped into the Tour de France with one of the last two places.
For 2024 Total Energies merited an invitation. They had two second places during the Tour’s stages last year and even if they’ve lost their star Peter Sagan, he wasn’t delivering any results. We can also look at the other teams in the second tier and none of them scream “pick me” or “essential”. But this is where the problems come because the likes of Tudor and Q36.5 are on the up. Tudor’s got itself a wildcard for the Giro d’Italia and yes the brand has started sponsoring the race but it has a credible team for a grand tour with the likes of Matteo Trentin, Michael Storer, Alberto Dainese and more. One or two more signings and they’ll have an ironclad case for a Tour invite.
Also there’s a rule coming where in 2025 invites can only go to those ranked among the top-40 teams on the UCI World ranking, and by 2026 this shrinks to the top-30. Total ought to be OK but right now they’re ranked 80th and have just 11 points but of course it is only February and given their riders and race programme they’ll climb up the rankings but still… eleven points combined. So there’s already some jeopardy this season and even more so the next.
If all this is based on moving parts with the likes of Tudor on the rise, we must think several moves ahead as there could be fallers. We’re in the second year of the three year World Tour promotion/relegation cycle where two of the current top-18 teams could drop out, right now this could be Arkéa and Astana but we’re 35% of the way there. A relegated team might find the second tier more accommodating but equally the sponsors could walk. It’s not something the team and its backers should rely on.
The solution for Total Energies is to beef up their recruitment, to make them a must-have team for July. Which is where Julian Alaphilippe comes in. The team was already looking closely at signing him in the wake of the failed Jumbo-Soudal team merger where the Frenchman could have been left out and free to sign elsewhere. Interestingly the talk about signing Alaphilippe wasn’t unsourced gossip but came from none other than Patrick Pouyanné (pictured), the chairman and CEO of Total Energies speaking about his sponsorship of sport to L’Equipe (my translation):
I needed sports that are close to people. I was told about the Tour de France. Then we bought Direct Energie and so picked up a team. During a stage in the Pyrenees I met Jean-René Bernaudeau. I only asked one thing: “no scandal. Otherwise the next day you’ll lose your sponsor”. I was also really impressed, following the strategy, by the amount of people with our jerseys*. After all, a company that leads in France, and one of the biggest in the world as well, can it allow itself not to win while it’s winning in business? I said one day to Jean-René “if you could get Alaphilippe, a French guy, nice guy, who is well-known and has positive images? I’d be prepared to raid the piggy bank”.
* the team hands out imitation jerseys from the publicity caravan to spectators ahead of the race
Alaphilippe isn’t a done deal. The team probably looked about buying him out of his current Soudal contract but they’d have to match his lucrative contract otherwise why would he move? Only Alaphilippe these days isn’t as valuable a prospect, he might still be a talent. Still he could sign on the right terms and this might swing things for them in terms of an invitation but they might need another signing, or at least to see their Mathieu Burgaudeau land a big result and hope Pierre Latour can get over his descending phobia. Alaphilippe though is far from certain to sign, other teams will be interested. Indeed it might not be a match… but if Tudor wanted to ride the Tour then Alaphilippe could be of interest too.
Total Energies make for a curious team, one of the biggest corporate sponsors going with a vast global marketing budget that could fund a top-tier cycling team out of loose change, yet it’s content with a small but friendly team that just qualifies for the Tour de France. They’re still an obvious pick for one of the two wildcards for this year’s Tour de France. But this isn’t guaranteed, regulatory change with the obligation to pick among the top-30 teams soon makes things harder and rival teams positioning to make themselves the obvious choice for an invite make things harder. Alaphilippe’s imminent availability is of interest but they’ll have to raid the piggybank soon or risk the 25 year story stopping.
There’s a similar story with Uno-X but they’re a step ahead. They’ve signed with Magnus Cort, Andreas Leknessund, Alexander Kristoff but now have to convert this into results in case as rival teams have ambitions to overtake them.