Road cycling reforms: show me the number

Jacques Anquetil

Jacques Anquetil attacks the peloton

This post is about number 9, or more accurately, about the inadequacy of number 9.

As you know, there are 9 riders on each Grand Tour team. Not 11 and not 13, 9. Ever wondered why? I don’t know and I suspect nobody does. Is there is anything wrong with 9? I think there is.

I talked in my last post about the need to improve the road cycling spectacle and I believe one other way to improve it is to reduce the number of riders a team can have in a Grand Tour.

Currently, with 9 riders per team, it’s possible to create a Super Team that can control the race to such an extent that the victory in the individual classification is almost guaranteed. We saw this with the Postal team under Lance Armstrong and the recipe was reused by the Sky team this year with Wiggins.

Assuming you’ve got a guy capable of winning, for example, the Tour de France, two other ingredients are needed to build a Super Team: money and a smart Directeur Sportif (DS for short). Once the three elements, the guy, the money and the DS, are in place, the chances are high a Super Team will do the job it was set up to do – win the Tour. This is so because the three elements are hard to come by all at once – you might have the guy but no money to buy good enough domestiques (or enough good domestiques), or the guy and the money but no DS capable of building a Super Team (think of Katyusha and BMC, they’ve got the cash and each team has got the guy, but no DS capable of setting up a Super Team).

Because the three elements are hard to put together, it’s unlikely two or more Super Teams will appear in a single Grand Tour. Once it is set up and ready to go, a Super Team will take care of business. Great ROI for the sponsors, but we’ll be the ones watching 7-8 guys riding tempo col after col, stage after stage with no one crazy enough to attack anywhere, save for the last 2 km.

Is it possible to minimise the strength and the dominance of a Super Team? I think it is: with 6 riders per team instead of 9, no team will be able to dominate the peloton a Super Team can today – not enough riders available to do that kind of job. Add to it a real possibility that one or two riders on most teams won’t make it to the end and I can’t see how 4-5 guys, with one of them being a “protected” rider, can dominate a race like Tour de France.

Smaller teams will also mean breakaways will have a better chance of staying away – unless several teams cooperate, a single team with only 3-4 riders available to do the chasing will have a hard time shutting a breakaway down if they let them gain any serious advantage.

Better breakaway chances will encourage more aggressive tactics – if riders know they have a chance of not being caught with the right breakaway, they will try to form them more aggressively and we will even see bridging attempts and all the rest of road cycling tactics of old. Given there is still enough kilometers left to race, no race is over until it’s over – this is one of those things that made road cycling so special when it was a sport rather than a business.

Sprinters too will have to rely more on their skill of picking the right wheel rather than on a lead-out train to position themselves for the sprint – the flat stages will become, once again, less predictable.

The advantages of smaller teams don’t stop there. There are 23 teams and 207 riders in the Tour de France today. With 6 riders per team, the number of teams can be increased to 34 while the number of riders on the road will stay almost the same. With more teams having access to the Tour, the sponsors will be willing to invest more money into the teams with a Tour de France ticket. Not only that, with the number of teams increased by 45%, it’s likely more new sponsors will be found willing to invest in their brand through the exposure Tour de France offers.

More teams in Grand Tours will also mean more young riders can race in big races who wouldn’t have had a chance otherwise because their teams do not qualify automatically or are never invited. This will build up their experience and speed up their maturity as a professional road cyclist, something too many of them denied in the current 9-rider per team set up.

In summary, the main advantages of 6-rider teams instead of 9 are:

  1. No more Super Teams – increased competitiveness and spectacle of road cycling.
  2. Better chances for breakaways not to be caught.
  3. With higher chances for successful breakaways, road racing will return to its inherent aggressiveness.
  4. Without lead-out super trains, sprinters will have to rely on their positioning skills to win – flat races will return to their less predictable scenarios.
  5. More sponsors will have access to Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España and other major races and more new sponsors are attracted to the sport – more money flows into road cycling.
  6. More younger riders will ride in major races to gain experience with more chances to show their talent.

If you have any other interesting ideas, please feel free to share them in the comments. We just never know who might be reading this :-)