With the news that the biggest bike race organisers want smaller team sizes in 2017, we consider some of the less obvious ways that this could affect the racing - and the sport as a whole
The announcement on Friday of a reduction in team sizes might not sound like the most earth-shattering innovation in cycling, but the difference between lining up with eight riders rather than nine at a Grand Tour – and six instead of seven in all other events – could impact races in ways not immediately obvious.
As explained in the join-statement made by ASO, RCS Sport and Flanders Classic, it’s hoped the proposed changes will lead to both safer conditions for the riders as well as heightening the excitement of the racing.
The logic goes that a reduced peloton will mean less congested roads, and therefore decrease the likelihood of crashes, while it’s thought that having less domestiques per team will make it harder for squads like Team Sky to control races by riding tempo at the front of the peloton.
Both of these hoped-for consequences make sense in theory, and would certainly be welcome. Something had to be done about rider safety, with discontent in the peloton reaching boiling point following a succession of high-profile incidents ranging from yet more motorbikes collisions to inflatable banners collapsing on top of riders.
And some races – particularly the Tour de France – have lacked excitement and unpredictability in recent years, especially compared with the more anarchic editions of races already featuring smaller team sizes such as the Tour of Britain and the Olympics road race.
But while these two issues of rider safety and racing excitement are the main motivations behind the changes, there will undoubtedly be other implications more difficult to predict.
Firstly, the new regulations will force teams to be more selective when picking line-ups for races. Those with one clear leader will be more reluctant to take a gamble on ‘luxury’ riders given license to ride for themselves, so the likes of Dimension Data’s Steve Cummings and Lotto-Soudal’s Thomas de Gendt, who tend to flourish in free roles, may be forced into more domestique duties, or risk missing out on selection altogether.
For the same reason, there will be less instances of teams targeting more than one classification at Grand Tours. Even with nine riders Sky found the strain of looking after both Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish’s interests in the same race too much, so teams with top sprinters and GC threats (like Trek-Segafredo with Alberto Contador and John Degenkolb, and FDJ with Thibaut Pinot and Arnaud Démare) may be prompted to pick just one of their stars.
Also, there will be less room to give young riders Grand Tour experience. Faced with the choice of selecting another domestique or handing a promising young rider their debut, the cautious approach would be to plumb for the former, which could hinder the next generation of new prodigies from developing as quickly as the likes of Adam Yates.
Although races with smaller team sizes have tended to be produce more open racing, there are a few aggressive tactics that will be discouraged. When an overall favourite attempts a long-range attack, for instance, they tend to do so having already sent team-mates up the road in breakaways, knowing that they’ll have someone to ride for them later. But with one less team-mate to reply on, such moves will be more difficult to pull off.
Similarly, some of the most spectacular racing occurs when a team takes to the front of the peloton when crosswinds are blowing, using their collective strength to tear the peloton to pieces. Again, with smaller team sizes, we might see such manoeuvres attempted less frequently.
Even the notion that the peloton will be safer is not entirely clear cut. The most dangerous part of a bike race is the run-in to a bunch sprint, when rival lead-out trains compete for the best spot at the front of the bunch. Another knock-on effect of smaller teams could be smaller sprint trains, which in turn would potentially make for even more chaotic, and therefore perilous, finishes.
All of these consequences are theoretical, as much will depend on which type of rider teams will opt to drop from their line-ups – and the UCI has said that any change in team sizes must be agreed by the Professional Cycling Council (PCC). But one thing for sure is that these changes will alter the manner of racing at the highest level – it will be intriguing to see exactly how.