Team Sky may be confident of a place in the Tour de France next season, but nobody will be taking anything for granted until they get their invite in the post.
Because of the agreement brokered between the Tour's organiser, ASO, and the UCI in September 2008, 16 teams are guaranteed a place in next year's race.
Two French squads which did not have their ProTour licences renewed for 2010 - Cofidis and Bbox Bouygues - are covered by that agreement.
However, if ASO had the freedom to select its own teams there are several on the list of 16 that would have reason to be fearful. The identity of some of those teams ASO is obliged to accept underlines why the company was so keen to pick its own line-up in the first place.
Euskaltel-Euskadi, for example, may have felt the cold consequences of Mikel Astarloza's positive drug test, which was revealed only after he'd won a stage in the Alps at this year's Tour.
Footon-Servetto's line-up is weak and unglamorous and the team was formed from the ashes of the Saunier Duval team brought into disrepute by dopers Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli in 2008, making them less than ideal participants. Then there is Lampre, which did not include Damiano Cunego in the 2009 Tour and had a poor race, and Milram, the German team that has consistently failed to impress. Even OmegaPharma-Lotto may have looked vulnerable following the departure of their GC contender and world champion Cadel Evans.
But as things stand, 16 teams are guaranteed a place on the start line in Rotterdam in July. The question is how many wild card invites will there be, and who will Christian Prudhomme and co hand them to?
In this year's Tour there were 20 teams of nine riders but, given the strength of competition for the remaining place, Prudhomme is already considering extending that to 22 teams. There is even the slim possibility of cutting team sizes to eight riders and inviting some more teams, but this option has far-reaching logistical implications for the organisation of the race and accommodation.
Here we list the 16 teams guaranteed their Tour place and weigh up the options of the other teams hoping for a place. Even Prudhomme has admitted competition will be fierce.
WHO WILL RIDE THE 2010 TOUR DE FRANCE?
16 TEAMS GUARANTEED A PLACE
1 Ag2r-La Mondiale (Fra)
2 Astana (Kaz)
3 Bbox Bouygues Telecom (Fra)
4 Caisse d'Epargne (Spa)
5 Cofidis (Fra)
6 Columbia-HTC (USA)
7 Euskaltel-Euskadi (Spa)
8 Française des Jeux (Fra)
9 Footon-Servetto (Spa)
10 Lampre (Ita)
11 Liquigas (Ita)
12 Milram (Ger)
13 Quick Step (Bel)
14 Rabobank (Ned)
15 Saxo Bank (Den)
16 OmegaPharma-Lotto (Bel)
WHO'S IN THE RUNNING FOR THE REMAINING PLACES?
Team Radio Shack (USA)
Pros: Extra publicity and financial boost of Lance Armstrong, a seven-time winner
Cons: The rest of the team is ageing
Chances of an invite: 10/10 Prudhomme surely won't exclude Lance. He's too valuable
Pros Vande Velde and Wiggins have impressed in the
last two years, Farrar is emerging to challenge Cavendish, Vaughters
now a big noise in the sport's political circles
Cons: Very few reasons to exclude them
Chances of an invite: 9.5/10 As certain as any team can be they will be in Rotterdam
BMC Racing (Swi)
Pros: They have the world champion Cadel Evans, plus George Hincapie
Cons: There's not a lot else to boast about
Chances of an invite: 8/10 The rainbow jersey adds prestige, ASO may want it on board
Team Sky (GB)
Pros: High-profile, hugely-important media backer, marketing clout and guaranteed publicity
Cons: As it stands at this moment, the lack of a leader for the GC
Chances of an invite: 8/10 Team isn't packed with stars. Gerrans and Boasson Hagen are big players, but if there are only four extra places and it's a choice between them, BMC and Evans or Cervélo with Sastre and Hushovd, who would ASO choose?
Cervélo Test Team (Swi)
Pros: 2009 green jersey winner Thor Hushovd and 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre are on the team
Cons: Sastre wasn't brilliant at the 2009 Tour
Chances of an invite: 8/10 ASO will want Hushovd there to keep the sprints interesting, surely?
Pros: Big-money team from a country that has a huge potential TV audience
Cons: They didn't exactly pull up trees in the 2009 Tour, although Ivanov did win a stage. Two drug positives in 2009 and no real GC leader.
Chances of an invite: 6/10 If there are only four additional places on offer, Katusha look vulnerable
Pros: Dutch team, Dutch start, the Feillu brothers
Cons: No general classification riders
Chances of an invite: 4/10 If there are six wild card invites they could be the last through the door, but it'd mean leaving out a bigger, better team
Pros: Impressed with their willingness to race in the 2009 Tour. With a start in Holland, there may be an appetite for another Dutch team
Cons: No stars
Chances of an invite: 3/10 Even with the Dutch connection, slim because of the level of competition
Pros: They're a French team with French riders, including former stage winner Jimmy Casper
Cons: Tiny team, very inexperienced, there are already four French teams guaranteed entry
Chances of an invite: 0/10 No chance
THE VERDICT ON TEAM SKY'S CHANCES
If Prudhomme decides on a 20-team Tour, Team Sky look to be in a three-way fight with Cervélo and BMC for the final two places (assuming Radio Shack and Garmin are likely to be in). If there are 22 teams in the Tour, Team Sky will be there for sure. However, the British-backed team will want to hit the ground running in January to make an instant impression and make certain.
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