Blazin' Saddles

Summer snub for Dutch teams

Blazin' Saddles

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Some riders will be unexpectedly booking their summer holidays for July after ASO released the list of 22 teams included for this year's Tour de France.

Ironically, given that the race begins in Rotterdam on 3rd July, it is two Dutch Pro-Continental teams that have suffered the cruel blow of exclusion.

But while many will not exactly rue the absence of Skil-Shimano - for whom Kenny Van Hummel's daily battle with the broom wagon was the sole highlight last year - it is the snub to promising outfit Vacansoleil that will have raised even the Mona Lisa's eyebrows.

Not least because Vacansoleil signed two of France's most promising riders - the Feillu brothers - during the close season. The team also performed excellently in the Grand Tour debut in last year's Vuelta; they have a promising sprinter in Borut Bozic; they have excelled in races so far this season (Wouter Mol winning the Tour of Qatar); and they boast the gloriously attacking minded Johnny Hoogerland, the peloton's heir apparent to Jens Voigt.

What's more, Vacansoleil were one of the principal sponsors of the ASO-organised Paris-Nice race this March. All that work, it seems, for nothing.

In a week in which Rotterdam illuminated its famous Erasmus Bridge in yellow in anticipation of the Tour, the team list confirmation comes as a huge snub for Dutch cycling. Just moments after Christian Prudhomme praised Rotterdam's investment of 12 million euros ahead of the race with the endearing comments "I am absolutely convinced that the Dutch are bike crazy", the Frenchman ripped out Holland's heart by excluding two of the nation's prized packages. Rotterdam will have to root for Rabobank alone.

The decision, of course, comes down to politics and tradition. ASO are contractually bound to invite all 16 ProTour teams on the Tour, meaning a guaranteed place for the likes of Lampre (a team which almost disbanded over the summer), Astana (a team spearheaded by proven drug cheat Alexandre Vinokourov), Milram (a team whose win tally is worse than Portsmouth FC) and Footon-Servetto (a team of Mediterranean rookies whose only purpose seems to make sartorial faux-pas with their horrifically garish shirts).

That leaves six spots for 'wildcard' entries. Predictably they went to RadioShack (because of Lance Armstrong), Sky (because of Bradley Wiggins), Garmin (because of its proven pedigree), Cervelo (because of Carlos Sastre and Thor Hushovd), BMC (because of world champion Cadel Evans) and Katusha (because of, erm, not sure. . . Kim Kirchen?)

Jokes aside, it is an indubitably stellar list of 'wildcard' teams and it would be hard to lobby for the presence of Vacansoleil in preference of any of the six (except, perhaps, Katusha).

But it must be frustrating for the Dutch team. They are a newish team, granted, but they have been trumped by the vanity projects of others. Saddles's beef is not so much with Team Sky, which was admirably founded to showcase British talent and already carries so much clout (not to mention money - something ASO always likes) to make exclusion nigh-on impossible.

Rather, it is with RadioShack: a team which is basically Astana Mark II and which is present solely as a platform upon which Armstrong can launch a soon-to-be-dead-in-the-water attempt at an eighth Tour victory.

Like the sexuality revelations of Ricky 'He Bangs' Martin, RadioShack's invitation to the Tour hardly came as a surprise. But it would have been fairer had Astana disbanded after eight of its nine Tour riders followed the Texan across the Atlantic, and Alberto Contador joined another team. For as a result of the Shack's birth, we have a ProTour team which exists simply so that the reigning Tour champion can ride this July.

And it rankles to see Footon-Servetto not only present but there as a ProTour team. This is, lest we forget, the reincarnation of the shamed Saunier-Duval team of Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli, a team whose sole win last season came from a rider no longer wearing their quite frankly ridiculous colours; a team which BS can vouch will make about as much impact on the Tour as the misleadingly named film Deep Impact made on the 1998 Oscars campaign.

Brice Feillu, winner of the mountain stage to Arcalis on his debut Tour last year, told French media: "I'm surprised, even a bit angry. It's true that Vacansoleil is only Continental Pro and not ProTour - but do you think that teams like Footon-Servetto or Lampre will perform any better than us, despite their ProTour status? I'm not sure."

Feillu also lamented the fact that there may be as few as 25 French riders in the race, making it hard for the country to replicate its three stage wins last year. "You have to give a reason for French fans to line the streets or support the race on TV," he said. "There's going to be a huge emptiness in July, that's for sure."

It is early days, however, and there remains a glimmer of hope for the likes of Skil-Shimano and Vacansoleil. There is talk that ASO will invite a 23rd team along to the Tour, while given this is cycling we're talking about, there is always the chance that between now and July one team may well be banned from racing. Look what happened to the Indian national Kabaddi team, eh?

TOMMEKE THE LAP DOG: This week's edition of Humo, a Belgian radio and television magazine guide, shows an attractive brunette crouched over a little dog, its legs splayed as it receives a scratch to the tummy. Using the same kind of PhotoShop genius reserved for making Keira Knightly's bust buxom and Demi Moore's face attractive, IT whizz kids have replaced the dog's head with that of Tom Boonen and covered the mutt's torso with the colours of the Belgian national champion.

For the girl above is none other than Lore, Boonen's on-off-on-off-on partner, who has now moved back in with the QuickStep rider in his flat in Monaco.

Blazin' Saddles was, like many, initially perplexed by this piece of bizarre imagery - but after a chat with some of his esteemed contacts on Twitter ('Cyclitters'?), Saddles came to the conclusion that the message is that Boonen has (once again) been tamed by Lore: the wild dog party boy has been transformed to a lap dog.

Interestingly, if you look closely at the nether regions of the white dog you'll see very little: either the dog in question lacks balls or, to put it bluntly, Tommeke has become Lore's bitch. Just lucky there were no sniffer dogs around...

FEVER PITCH: Is it just BS or are the peloton's top riders showing a worrying tendency to contract illnesses this season?

First we had Cav struggling with tooth ache only to return with a mild bang before throwing in his Catalunya towel with the flu.

Then we had Armstrong pulling out of a race because of a stomach bug - swiftly followed by Wiggins, citing acute gastroenteritis.

Andy Schleck also has seen his early season hampered by stomach upsets - while both Contador and Denis Menchov have been inflicted with saddle sneezes as hay fever runs riot.

BS suggests they go train and race in France a bit more - there's about 16 pharmacies on every street in the country where administering suppositories is so popular it could be a national sport.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "If some persons were dead and buried, I would probably be happier. But I am not going to hire a couple of Colombian gangsters to make it a reality," a bitter Michael Rassmussen (allegedly) told the Danish media.

Two days later, 'The Chicken' retracted his comments, claiming they had been lost in translation. The wannabe Mexican, currently falling off his bike with alarming regularity for the Italian Miche squad, also told Cyclingnews that he was in negotiations with a ProTour team.

Saddles can see it all now: Ras will join the team only to see his chances of riding the Tour dashed when ASO ban his new outfit, leaving a spot open for... Vacansoleil.

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