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Explainer: The team size debacle

The decision to decrease team sizes in pro men’s cycling, announced by a group of race organizers on Friday and then rebuffed by a UCI statement a day later, is a case study in strange bedfellows, circumnavigated rules, and bold politics. Here’s what you need to know.

What happened?

On Friday, major race organizers ASO (Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice, Tour of California), RCS (Giro d’Italia), and Flanders Classics (Ronde van Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem) sent out a joint press release announcing that teams would be trimmed by one rider for the 2017 season. Grand tours would now have eight-man squads and smaller stage races and one-day races would have seven-man teams.

The organizers cited the twin goals of increased rider safety, thanks to a smaller peloton, and increased race dynamism. The logic is that a smaller team will find it more difficult to control a race, thus making the racing more interesting.

The statement was released unilaterally by the race organizers, apparently without prior notice to the UCI or teams.

Less than 24 hours after the initial announcement, the UCI issued a short statement rejecting the change. The governing body noted that its own rules require such changes be approved by a group called the Professional Cycling Council (PCC), which is a sort of bridge between the sport’s major stakeholders. Though they were previously discussed, the team size changes were not approved by the PCC.

The UCI stated that team sizes would remain the same for the 2017 season, in direct opposition to the race organizers’ statement.

As of press time, the disparity between these two statements has not been resolved.

Why can’t everyone just get along?

Negotiations that are likely to affect the future of pro cycling generally take place between stakeholders behind closed doors. Occasionally we see public threats, as when ASO threatened to pull the Tour out of the WorldTour, but that is somewhat rare.

In this case, we appear to be watching the negotiations take place in the open, via the press.

The PCC, which contains representatives from the race organizers, teams, riders, and the UCI, is supposed to be the venue for this sort of decision making. The group met earlier this month and team size was a topic of discussion. But at the end of the meeting, the group dissolved with only a mandate to continue considering the change and reconvene to discuss at a later date. No final decision was made.

Technically, the PCC has to approve any change in team size. This is written in the UCI’s rulebook. I would say, “written clearly,” but that would be a gross exaggeration. As with many things in the UCI rulebook, the language is a bit muddy.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the PCC should be involved in these sort of decisions in some capacity or another. Race organizers circumnavigated this UCI rule and went directly to the public with their new plan. Why? Because they could.

Power structures and alliances in this sport are constantly shifting. Only the spot at the top, held by ASO, remains steady. Generally, race organizers tend to be at odds with each other, particularly Tour organizer ASO and Giro organizer RCS. But in this case, ASO has teamed up with RCS and Flanders Classics against teams, riders, and the UCI. This is a powerful alliance.

The combined leverage and power of ASO, RCS, and Flanders leaves the UCI and teams vastly outmatched in cycling’s political arena. The UCI can shout about rules all it wants but it has little recourse if the major race organizers decide to simply apply their own rules.

The UCI’s modus operandi under President Brian Cookson has been to seek consensus rather than dictate its own terms. This is something of a departure from the style of previous administrations. The result is that the UCI has been frequently pulled to and fro by opposing interests, usually teams and race organizers. Its ability to move forward in such circumstances is limited.

Race organizers’ decision to go straight to the public with a plan that seems to have quite a lot of public support (Who doesn’t want to see Sky’s grip on the Tour loosen a bit? Who doesn’t want even more chaotic classics races?) further increases the likelihood of this change going into effect.

If anyone has the right to be mad, it’s team owners. While the race organizers’ unilateral decision was a slap in the face of the UCI, it was a slap in the wallet of team owners, who have built rosters based on nine-rider grand tours and eight-rider classics races. Lots of planning just flew out the window, and more than a few rider signings are now going to be less useful to the team’s goals.

Going forward, expect a few more press releases to be tossed back and forth while discussions are ongoing behind the scenes. Someone will fold. Or, as was the case with the hotly debated change to the number of WorldTour teams, all parties will simply agree to kick the can down the road bit further.

Let’s assume the change is implemented. What will it do to racing?

The effect will likely be smaller than some hope or expect, but there is no question that dropping team size will affect racing, tactics, and safety concerns.

Trimming teams will decrease total peloton size, a goal that has seen widespread support from both teams and organizers. The Tour de France will drop from 198 to 176 riders. That’s still a large peloton, but one that is, theoretically anyway, slightly more manageable.

However, changing the size of the peloton does very little to negate the battles for position that occur near the front. These battles are the most frequent cause of crashes. It is therefore erroneous to believe that cutting 1/9 of the field will decrease total crashes in kind.

The second goal of the change is to “make it more difficult to dominate a race, as well as enhance conditions for events to offer better racing for cycling fans,” according to the race organizers’ statement. This is quite clearly a direct shot at Team Sky, which has admitted to its paralyzing effect on the Tour de France peloton.

Will dropping from nine to eight riders remove Sky’s (or any other strong GC team’s) ability to control a race? No. It will dilute it somewhat, but the small change won’t put an end to the tactic.

Eight-man teams will magnify the effect of losing a rider to injury or illness. Dropping to seven or even six severely hinders a team’s ability to control a race. Recall that of Froome’s three Tour wins, only one saw Sky finish with all nine riders. The team finished with seven and eight in the other two. Lop one rider off for this new rule and you have a GC team defending yellow with only six riders — a tricky proposition.

The change is likely to decrease the practice of teams arriving at the grand tours with both sprint and GC leaders. Teams will be wary of attempting to protect and support two different leaders with only six domestiques.

There is precedent for smaller teams increasing racing drama. The Tour of Britain is an excellent example. With six-man squads, that race is notoriously difficult to control, and is often won by a rider few picked at the start. That’s the sort of unpredictable racing this rule change seeks to bolster.

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