When Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme was asked last month what he thought of the possible plan being discussed with the UCI to reduce the sizes of teams in Grand Tours from nine riders to eight, he replied, In absolute terms, we wouldnt complain about having one less rider on each team, first of all because of security, and then because the race might be a little less blocked.
This proposal has gained traction in recent years mainly because of the seemingly escalating number of pileups in the opening stages of the Tour and Giro dItalia that have resulted in key riders crashing out or losing any hope of contending for the overall victory. On the long list of those whove been so affected in recent Tours are (in alphabetical order) Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, Robert Gesink, Ryder Hesjedal, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, Andy Schleck, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Brad Wiggins. In other words, all these riders lost their chance of finishing on the podium in at least one Grand Tour because of bad crashes.
So will reducing the size of the peloton by 11 percent, from 198 riders (22 teams of nine) to 176 riders (22 teams of eight), make the race any safer? And will having slightly smaller teams open up the race, as Prudhomme would like? Both questions are up for discussion, while reducing the team size would have other repercussions that also need to be considered.
First, a little history.
Nine-man teams have been the format at the Tour for the past 26 years. Before that, and since trade teams were first introduced to the race in 1962, the team size varied between 10 and 11 riders. And before that, in the era of national teams, starting rosters were sometimes as small as eight. Yes, eight, the magic number that is now being discussed.
When founding Tour director Henri Desgrange first introduced national teams in 1930, he decided that eight was the magic number. Eight-man teams remained for seven years until team size was increased to 10 in 1937, 12 in 1938 and back to eight in 1939. Postwar, teams of 10 were most common, except for two very unusual years.
In 1960, the four major cycling nations, Belgium, France, Italy and Spain, each had 14-man teams (yes, 14!), while all the other countries and French regional squads had just eight riders. It wasnt surprising that that the four blockbuster teams dominated that Tour, sweeping the podium and winning 18 of the 21 stages.
However, in 1951, when the major nations had 12-man rosters, Switzerland started the Tour with just eight ridersand it was the Swiss team leader, Hugo Koblet, who won the race, despite having only seven riders to call upon (and only five after two teammates abandoned the race in the opening week)! Admittedly, Koblets Tour win was more than six decades ago, but the peloton still races on the same terrain over the same time period, and the team dynamics needed to support a leader and defend the yellow jersey havent changed that much. So is eight the magic number?
Even this year, Team Sky defended the yellow jersey of Brad Wiggins with seven riders after one of its men, Kanstantsin Sivtsov, was the first rider to crash out of the race, on stage 3. So, if Sky can win a modern Tour with a virtual eight-man team, why are most team managers against the idea of cutting their Grand Tour rosters from nine to eight?
First of all, the teams arent convinced that reducing the number of riders in the peloton to 176 is going to make a huge difference in reducing the number of crashes. There are so many reasons why crashes happen, and the size of the pack is not the main one. A quick look at recent pileups in the Tour shows that among the factors more likely to cause riders to fall are adverse road or weather conditions (slick descents, cobbled back roads, torrential rain), rider inattention (touching wheels, taking a turn too fast), road hazards (roundabouts, traffic islands, signposts) or spectators (leaning into the street, taking photos).
Yes, when theres a domino-effect pileup, a bigger peloton can make it more destructive, but rarely are more than a dozen riders involvedthough if the pileup is on a narrow road dozens more can be delayed and perhaps lose precious time by the stage end. Perhaps more effective in reducing the number of crashes near the end of stages than having smaller teams would be to change the 3-kilometer-to-go rule (whereby any rider delayed by a crash or mechanical in the last 3 kilometers of a flat stage is credited with the same time as the group he was with) and make it a 5-kilometer-to-go rule (and just give everyone whos in the pack the same time as the sprint winner whether they have trouble or not in the last 5 kilometers). This would stop overall contenders from having to take unnecessary risks to stay with the sprinters in high-speed, often dangerous, run-ins.
Looking at Prudhommes other positive aspect of having smaller teamsa less-blocked racethat too is debatable. As Team Sky showed this year, they were as dominant with eight men as any nine-man team has been in the past two decades. But should an eight-man squad lose one or even two riders in the first week of a Grand Tour, that team would not be able to dominate. Having a less-controlled race would be just fine for organizers such as Prudhomme, but the teams can argue that defending the yellow jersey with reduced numbers would put too much pressure on the domestiques at a time when the sports administrators are looking to lessen their workload and cut the temptation to dope.
Veteran racers have pointed out that when teams are smaller, there is a likelihood that some squads will informally join forces to control the racing (so-called combines), with perhaps one of those teams defending a major jersey and the others shooting for stage wins or other goals. Even though thats strictly against UCI regulations, any such arrangement would make the race more controlled.
Also, team directors say that when they have nine men at their disposal they can rest one or two team workers each day, so they are fresher to work hard on later stages. With only eight men, their domestiques would not get any respitenot something they want.
There are other aspects to this eight-man proposal, both plus and minus. On the minus side, having 22 fewer riders in the field, the media (particularly print journalists) would have fewer daily stories to follow up for their regional and national newspapers. And having a smaller team would make it even harder to pursue dual purposes, as Team Sky (barely) did this year, with Wiggins and Chris Froome taking first and second overall, and Mark Cavendish winning three stages (but with no chance of defending his green jersey).
On the plus side, eight-man teams make it possible to add two more starting teamswhich would allow organizers to select six wild-card teams instead of the current four (in addition to the mandatory 18 UCI ProTeams). This would please the non-WorldTour formations, allowing the Tour organizers to award four of the six wild cards to French teams, while adding two more ProContinental squads, perhaps from countries like China, Colombia or South Africa. Having such teams would give the Tour even greater international appeal, while adding to the potential for an even more open and competitive racesomething that organizers, media and fans are all looking for.
Looking back at recent history, two of the more exciting Tours took place in 1986 and 1987. In the first of those (won by Greg LeMond over Bernard Hinault), there were a record 210 starters in 10-man teams. Increasing the size of the field that year allowed the organizers to add an extra teamwhich just happened to be the Tours first-ever American squad, 7-Eleven, whose Alex Stieda took the first yellow jersey and Davis Phinney became the first American to win a road stage. The following year, when Stephen Roche narrowly defeated Pedro Delgado, teams were reduced to nine ridersbut there were 23 teams and 207 starters, which allowed the organizers to include the Tours first-ever British trade team, ANC-Halfords.
Given those experiences, and should the UCI agree to eight-man teams in Grand Tours, then the best way to enliven the Tour and bring even more global interest is to increase the number of teams to 24. And there would still be fewer starters (192 compared with 198). After all, the major one-day classics have up to 25 teams and 200 starters, and those races are no less safe than Grand Tours and often far more exciting.