Why do pro-race organisers want smaller teams?

What are the problems with large teams and what can we learn…

On 25 November, three of professional cycling’s biggest race organisers announced their intention to reduce the numbers of riders allowed to compete in their events. Some WorldTour teams are not delighted about that, to put it mildly.

Between them, Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), RCS Sport and Flanders Classics own almost all of the sport’s biggest races: the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, and all five one-day monuments (Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia), along with a host of other important dates on the race calendar. The three organisations have decided to reduce the size of a team from nine riders to eight in the three grand tours, and eight riders to seven in all the others.

It’s a proposition that’s been under consideration for the last few seasons as a possible solution to a couple of problems the sport’s encountered in recent years: rider safety and boring racing. 

So what’s led to these problems? How will having fewer riders solve them? And what can everyday, non-pro riders take away from the whole predicament?

Why do race organisers want to reduce team sizes?

Some teams are accused of throttling the fun out of races through strength of numbers
Some teams are accused of throttling the fun out of races through strength of numbers

One issue that reducing rider numbers is intended to address is crashing. Pile-ups are an unavoidable part of racing, but they appear to be happening more frequently.With tightly packed bunches of almost 200 riders tearing through turns at 60km/h on the run-in to the finish, the margin for error is tiny and, in situations like this, any mistakes have big consequences. It’s thought that having a smaller bunch will make it easier for the riders to negotiate the race route and reduce the chances of them bringing each other down.

Another reason to have fewer riders is to try and increase the spectacle. The criticism most often levelled at races — particularly the grand tours — is that the excitement has been sucked out of them. The ubiquity of race radios and power meters is often cited as the reason for the almost robotic ability of certain teams to bend the bunch to its will.

But the gadgets aren’t going anywhere. So the other option is to try and make it harder for individual teams to control the peloton by reducing the number of riders they have at their disposal. Less control means more exciting racing… in theory, at least.

Another reason to reduce team size is so race organisers can invite more teams. At major races, the UCI stipulates that all WorldTour teams participate, which limits the chances for lower-level teams.

Some team managers are objecting to the measure’s sudden implementation and its timing, most notably Patrick Lefevere (QuickStep) and Jim Ochowicz (BMC Racing).

Why do teams want the extra riders?

The more lowly riders on a team do an important job ferrying drinks and snacks, drafting the GC contenders and more
The more lowly riders on a team do an important job ferrying drinks and snacks, drafting the GC contenders and more

Not all of them do. Some of them, such as Cannondale-Drapac’s Jonathan Vaughters, aren’t against the idea of having smaller teams at races. But the outcry to the race organisers announcing their intention to go ahead with it is largely due to the timing, and the fact that the decision came without warning. 

It came at a point when many ProTour teams had already recruited riders, planned race and training schedules and budgeted for it all based on the existing numbers of riders permitted in a race team, and the associated staff required to support them. 

But admin and accounting issues aside, the extra rider — whoever it is — can play a pivotal role when it comes to racing, as more hands, or, in this case, legs, make light work. An extra rider makes it easier to split your team’s objectives between two or more leaders for one-day races, and in multi-day events between stage victories and the general classification, for instance. (Although quite how successful this approach actually is remains open to debate.) 

It also means there are more riders to fetch food, drink and clothing from the team car, and more bodies for the team leader to draft behind and be escorted through the bunch.

But perhaps most importantly, it provides more insurance for a team, giving them back-up options if a team member is forced to drop out of an event due to illness or injury.

Why might reducing team sizes not solve these problems?

The number of incidents involving rider collisions with race vehicles, like this one at the 2016 Tour de France, are feared to be increasing
The number of incidents involving rider collisions with race vehicles, like this one at the 2016 Tour de France, are feared to be increasing

For a start, the issue’s not necessarily about how many riders are racing, but how they’re racing. Many crashes are caused by the number of teams fighting to keep their leaders at the front in order to avoid any splits that may result in time losses — splits that, somewhat ironically, are often caused by crashes. 

Although reducing team sizes means there’ll be slightly fewer riders in that fight, it won’t eliminate the fight to get to the front as the finish line approaches. Especially if teams going for the general classification (GC) in stage races are among teams fighting for the sprint. One alternative is moving the time cut-off point out to the 3km-to-go mark to give the GC teams a chance to get out of the way of the sprinters’ battle.

Another issue is the fact that the riders aren’t always responsible for the worst crashes, as camera bikes and official cars have run into riders on a frightening number of occasions in recent years, often with devastating consequences. Fewer riders may free up more space for the vehicles on the road but if those vehicles aren’t passing the bunch at appropriate moments and at appropriate distances, accidents will continue to happen.

There’s also the problem of the roads and the obstacles — or 'street furniture' — on them. No one wants to see a bunch streaming up and down motorways, as straight, flat, wide roads don’t make for an appealing backdrop to race or a particularly challenging course. But taking races into town centres brings the bunch on to narrow, twisting streets that are increasing filled with traffic-calming measures to control the traffic on the other 364 days of the year. If these measures can’t be avoided on the route, then they need to be clearly signposted so riders can steer clear of them, and be bulwarked in case any riders can’t. 

What can those of us not riding WorldTour events learn from all this?

For us amateurs, there are plenty of reasons to ride in a group: it's fun, it improves your performance, and it could bail you out of trouble
For us amateurs, there are plenty of reasons to ride in a group: it's fun, it improves your performance, and it could bail you out of trouble

Riding on roads open to traffic and for fun and fitness rather than results and jerseys means most everyday cyclists are unlikely to find themselves in tightly packed bunches with riders spread across the entire width of the road.

However, you probably will want to ride in a group partly to be social and partly because, like in the professional ranks, you can ride further and faster with more friends around you to share the work. And if one of you has a problem, there are people around who can help to remedy it — either with the help of some food, some spare clothing or perhaps even a quick repair — and help you get back to the group if you fall off the pace. 

But you’ll also want to keep your rides exciting, which means that at appropriate times, when the road is free from hazards, your bunch may develop into a paceline, possibly before turning into a flat-out sprint for a designated landmark or town limit sign. At times like these, communication is vital, and although you may not be inclined to take your hands off the bars to signal things like potholes, manhole covers or bollards, you can call them out along with the side you’ll be passing. 

Choosing when and where to ‘tear it up’ is perhaps more important, just as selecting a suitable route for the run-in to the finish is at the ProTour events. Hopefully balancing this with the number of riders actually tackling the route will help ensure pro and amateur riders alike are kept safe and excited.

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