Aqua Blue Sport owner speaks of wildcard frustration, calls for changes

Team Aqua Blue Sport owner Rick Delaney.

The Aqua Blue Sport team has made a solid impression thus far at the Dubai Tour, sending riders up the road in breaks, riding aggressively in the peloton and, on Thursday, driving the pace when the bunch split in the crosswinds. Adam Blythe was also a solid fourth on stage three, rubbing shoulders with the world’s best sprinters.

Team owner Rick Delaney was consequently a satisfied person at the finish but, race performance aside, was frustrated about a different subject. The squad gained a wildcard invite to the Vuelta a Espana last year, winning a stage in that race via Stefan Denifl. It punched above its weight in what was its debut season, taking other results such as Larry Warbasse’s stage win at the Tour de Suisse and US road race championships title, and Denifl’s overall victory at the Tour of Austria.

And yet, despite those showings, it has missed out on wildcards for the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and, if rumours are correct, the Vuelta itself. Race organisers have favoured teams from those countries rather than looking further afield.

It’s something which has vexed Delaney. “There are certainly two [Grand Tour slots] gone,” he told CyclingTips shortly after the stage three finish. “The third one is looking unlikely. Of course we are bitterly disappointed. I could talk to you for the next half an hour and rant to you as to the reasons why and why not. But it is very, very disappointing.

“[We’ve missed] not just a Grand Tour but also other races like Milan-Sanremo, which we thought we would certainly get a wildcard invite to. And Paris-Roubaix. It is disappointing, but we have just to keep going. Just try and prove ourselves by getting results. We got off to a great start in Australia, and I think we are representing ourselves very, very well here. We have Oman next week, so onwards and upwards for sure.”

Given the Irish team’s strong first season, it might be expected that it would be getting more invites this year, rather than less. Delaney says he is at ‘a complete loss’ to understand why this is the case.

“I think we did very, very well last season,” he said. “I think we were hugely successful for our first year, so you would think we would build on that and not the reverse, going backwards. And it certainly feels like we are going backwards.”

Home team favouritism?

The Giro d’Italia wildcards were announced in January and saw Italian teams Androni Giocattoli, Bardiani CSF and Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia get the nod, as well as Israel Cycling Academy. The latter was virtually guaranteed a ride by virtue of the fact that the race will begin in Israel and because of team owner Sylvan Adams’ work in bringing the race there.

The Tour also named its invites in January. It has selected French teams Cofidis, Direct Energie and Fortuneo-Samsic, as well as Belgian outfit Wanty-Groupe Gobert.

And while the Vuelta wildcards are yet to be confirmed, media reports suggest that the race will give its slots to the three Spanish Pro Continental teams Burgos-BH, Caja Rural and Euskadi Basque Country-Murias, as well as French outfit Cofidis. The latter’s sponsor is a sponsor of the Vuelta.

With six out of the eight confirmed invites from the Giro and the Tour going to home teams – and possibly nine out of 12 if the Vuelta reports are true – it appears that race organisers have favoured their own.

Delaney said he believes this is the case. “And there have been a few surprises in there,” he said, referring to all the invites handed out by Giro organisers RCS Sport and Tour organisers ASO to their various events.

“I mean, I don’t want to name names, but some teams have four or five wildcards [to races], which doesn’t make any sense. Some new teams got three or four wildcards, and it doesn’t make any sense.”

Stefan Denifl won stage 17 of last year’s Vuelta a Espana, the team’s first Grand Tour.

For Delaney, the frustrating part is not being clear how selections are made, and what non-French or non-Italian teams need to do. “I just don’t know what he process is,” he said. “I guess if we all knew what the process is, well then we could maybe work towards qualifying for that process. But as long as we don’t know what the process is, we are obviously going to be in the dark.

“One would argue, I suppose, that we got the Vuelta last year,” he continued, showing that exceptions do happen. “But, if we got that start last year in year one, if we performed like we did, you would imagine that you would get it in year two. Not be in the situation we are in now. Again, I don’t know what the process is.”

Is there a fairer way?

Although Delaney is giving his own perspective here, Aqua Blue Sport is far from the only team feeling burned at this point. Others also applied to ride the various ASO and RCS Sport events, and they too have been left in the cold. They will have similar complaints to Delaney.

So, does he believe that the UCI should move to ensure clarification of the wildcard process is laid out by the organisers?

“I don’t think our voice is big enough or strong enough,” he said, referring to his team, “but I do think for the benefit of Pro Continental teams, just tell us what the protocol is. Then we can try and qualify or not qualify, or pay or not pay or do whatever the process is. But no one seems to know what that process is… It is up to the race organisers, at their discretion.”

There is a second element too which adds to the sense of frustration. In the past organisers made their decisions later in the season, encouraging attacking racing by the squads vying for a slot and giving them the opportunity to prove that they were worthy of an invite.

Now, the wildcards are handed out far earlier than they used to be. This means that there is little chance to push for inclusion via performances.

“I think it is unfair,” says Delaney. “I mean, I think the Vuelta are going to announce in the next couple of weeks for a race that is going to start at the end of August. I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, we could have a marvellous season…or other pro continental teams could get off to a fantastic start, yet be discarded.”

A Grand Tour ride may seem out of the picture in 2018, but Delaney and his squad have secured some slots in other events. ASO has confirmed the team will compete in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, while it has also been given a green light to the Amstel Gold Race.

“Yorkshire is a fantastic race,” said Delaney. “Gary Verity and his crew have been fantastic to us. I hope we are going to get an invite there. The Tour of Britain, obviously, is a big race for us. Suisse…we are going to go to Suisse, which is fantastic. They have invited us again. We performed well last year so they have invited us back. That makes sense.

“California is still on the cards. It would be great if we get California. It is a possibility, although we are still a little bit unsure how much of a possibility. And there’s obviously Amstel Gold and Liège. So we are still very solid. We will keep trying to make a difference and keep doing what we are doing.”

Delaney is well aware that the best way to make his point to the Grand Tour organisers is for the team to be successful. That too will help it to get invites to other events.

He believes that his team is continuing to make progress. He was satisfied with the Dubai Tour showing on stage three, and with Blythe’s fourth place.

“It was a great race, for us, I think. Very, very good. I think Adam was very unlucky…coming to that last roundabout I think he went a bit wide. But no, fourth – we will take that. That is encouraging. The win will come, definitely. He is really, really hungry. You look at him this year versus last year, and he is going much, much stronger. That win will come for sure.”

He’s not only satisfied with Blythe. “All the riders are showing great form so early in the season. They are all working very, very well, and it is coming together slowly. [Looking ahead], what I want is for us to try to get scores on the board, so we can hopefully secure other race starts throughout the season. We want to just hit the ground running…”