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The Sky trim: Will smaller teams make a difference?

Never has a team been so strong and so dominant that officials changed the rules to try to equalize the balance of power.

That’s what’s in store for 2018 with reductions in team rosters across the WorldTour. Just call it the Sky Trim.

Since 2012, Team Sky has steamrolled the Tour, winning five of the past six yellow jerseys. And it seems everyone — except those happy few inside the Sky bus and their most ardent fans — is sick of it.

To try to change the script, the UCI is rolling out a new rule that the Tour and other grand tours have long wanted: Reduced team sizes, from nine riders to eight. There’s also a trim from eight to seven riders for WorldTour one-day classics and weeklong stage races.

The hope is that next summer’s blockbuster won’t be a flop.

“We are interested to see how this evolves,” Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said last week. “First, we’re doing it for safety. And second, we are hoping the race is less controlled.”

In the press releases, officials say it’s all about rider safety. But make no mistake: The eight-man rule is all about trying to loosen Team Sky’s stranglehold on the Tour.

Unsafe at any speed

There’s no doubt the eight-rider rule will be an interesting experiment, but not everyone is thrilled about it.

First off, many doubt the new rule will deliver on what it’s being sold as: an effort to improve rider safety.

At first glance, the logic of having one fewer rider per team — shaving the grand tour peloton from 198 to 176 — seems sound. There will be fewer riders on the road, so there will be fewer crashes, right? Maybe not.

Insiders insist the size of the peloton isn’t the reason why races seem more dangerous. The Tour used to be raced with 10-rider teams. If there has been an uptick of serious crashes, the most serious have involved race vehicles. In 2016, Antoine Demoitié was killed in an impact with a motorcycle at Gent-Wevelgem.

“If they want safer races, they should find safer streets, instead of using old cart paths,” Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere told Het Nieuwsblad. “And do away with a right-hand corner at 50m before the finish line. Is that safe?”

Riders point to two reasons for perceived dangers in today’s peloton: speed and dangerous roads.

The peloton today is zipping along at a faster clip than ever before. Better equipment and higher stakes, set against a race that revs up right from the gun, means that everyone is pressing the pace more than ever. Riders are trying to squeeze into holes that are not there or push their limits for fear of missing out. Entire GC teams mass at the front of the bunch to avoid trouble. Something has to give.

“The higher the stakes, the happier you are to take higher risks,” said ex-pro Magnus Backstedt. “The sport’s changed, because it’s more professional, and there’s more money to be made.”

Will smaller teams reduce the likelihood of crashes. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Riders also grumble that it’s not the size of the peloton that makes the race dangerous, but the roads themselves. Modern-day infrastructure — the road furniture of traffic islands, roundabouts, speed bumps, metal poles and everything else designed to make vehicles go slower — makes roaring through a small French village at 60kph a risk to life and limb.

The UCI has stepped up course inspections ahead of races following a string of horrible high-profile accidents, including one involving Peter Stetina at the 2015 Vuelta a País Vasco when he struck a metal pole left in the middle of the race course. This summer, officials also introduced a three-second rule to measure finish gaps that helped cool the pressure-cooker on sprint stages.

Others argue that the best way to improve safety is to cull the number of teams from 22 to 18. Looking for compromise, the powers that be decided to whack the roster size.

Reducing the peloton by 22 riders, about 11 percent, will bring the pack size down and could ease the tension of the pack. Will it stop riders from crashing? No. Will it make it grand tours much safer? Without improvements course design and vehicles in the caravan, probably not that much.

Cracking the Froome code

So will the reduction of team sizes deliver on its second promise, and spice up the racing?

“That’s an assumption,” said BMC Racing general manager Jim Ochowicz. “Not a proven fact.”

More than a few have argued that Froome wouldn’t have won as many Tours without Team Sky (and vice-versa). Some suggest that any other world-class rider in Froome’s shoes would win the Tour on a trot. Would Quintana win with Sky? And Froome lose with Movistar? That’s impossible to know, but after years of Sky domination, people are desperate to try something to change the calculus each July.

“It could hurt [Froome] to have a reduction to eight riders,” said now-retired star Alberto Contador. “It could be a factor in the mountains or on the pavé.”

But which team is poised to take up the challenge of racing with eight riders instead of nine? Team Sky and its peloton-leading budget of nearly $30 million. As much as people like to criticize it, no team has raised the collective bar in cycling more than Team Sky. The team posted a Twitter photo this week of Froome and other teammates already testing time trial equipment for 2018.

“We are already talking about the 2018 Tour,” said Sky sport director Nicolas Portal last week. “That’s all we do.”

With everyone else facing the same reduction, teams will be under pressure to select the absolute strongest and most prepared riders to race the grand tours. Paradoxically, that could make the best-funded teams even stronger.

“[Team selection] is definitely going to be a big consideration,” Froome said last week at the Tour presentation. “In terms of selection, it will be guys who are very versatile who will be the obvious choice.”

Some suggest that if Team Sky loses one or more riders to crashes, injury, or illness, Froome might finally be vulnerable. Of course, what they forget is that the same thing could just as easily happen to another team.

In fact, last year, Team Sky raced the second half of the 2017 Tour one man short after key helper Geraint Thomas crashed out in stage 9. Froome still managed to eke out the win even on a course that did not favor his style of racing.

The only real way to equal the balance of power would be if only Team Sky could race with eight, and the rest of the peloton with nine. No one’s calling for that, at least not yet.

Team Sky
Team Sky lost a rider at the Tour in 2017 but still won the race handily, BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

Incredible shrinking peloton

Across the board, most riders and teams are against the idea of reducing roster sizes. Why? Smaller team rosters mean fewer contracts.

On Wednesday, BMC Racing confirmed the fears of many. It reduced its 2018 squad by five riders, from 29 to 24, citing the reduction of roster sizes across the peloton as the main reason. Other teams are also discreetly squeezing their lineups across the peloton.

That means fewer spots for both riders in the WorldTour and also for sport directors, soigneurs, mechanics, and other staff. The reduction comes just as the UCI is also expanding the WorldTour calendar with new events across the globe.

“I am completely against it,” Lefevere told Het Nieuwsblad. “No one consulted the riders or the teams. So why should we have 30 riders for 2018? You can get by with five fewer riders per team. You’ll have 100 riders out on the street, and 25 auxiliary staffers as well.”

Some argue the best way to equalize the peloton and infuse more dynamism into the action is create spending caps and budget equality.

So what will happen?

It appears there’s no retreat on the issue, at least not for 2018. The race organizers are soundly behind it, and the UCI seems committed to the new rule even with the arrival of new president David Lappartient.

It certainly will be interesting to see how it plays out. Fewer warm bodies could lead to fewer crashes. That will be hard to measure because so many factors can cause a crash.

Smaller teams could change the dynamic of the race. If it appears that it does, those who also support banning race radio and power meters might feel emboldened to press for additional restrictions. It seems more than a few are pining for the days of Merckx and Hinault.

Recently retired pro Tyler Farrar, who had his fair share of crashes during his 13-year career, said he hopes everyone at least considers the rule with an objective point of view.

“If we’re going to do it, let’s take an analytical approach,” he said. “If we run the classics and the grand tours, and the result is pretty much the same, I hope everyone will admit it. Let’s see what happens, and then be honest about the outcome.”

Will the new rule deliver a safer and more dynamic Tour? That tantalizing possibility will be among the hot talking points throughout 2018, both on and off the bike.

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