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NTT harkens for days of nine-rider rosters for grand tours

Discussions of reducing rosters during the Covid-19 pandemic revives debate about what the appropriate size of the peloton.

The long-running debate of what’s the appropriate size of a grand tour team is taking a new twist in the COVID-19 era.

With rosters already trimmed to eight since 2018, there’s been some discussion of reducing them to seven if and when racing might be able resume later this season.

With coronavirus shutting down the racing calendar, and putting teams under economic pressure, there has been fresh dialogue about reducing teams this fall to seven, in part to allow more teams to start more races.

Not everyone agrees. Management at NTT Pro Cycling still harkens back to the days of nine-rider rosters. Why? For team manager Doug Ryder, it’s about opportunity and storytelling.

“When it was nine riders, we could experiment and give more riders the opportunity to race the Tour,” Ryder said. “There were different stories to tell.”

That reduction hits especially close to home for Ryder, who created Africa’s first WorldTour team in large part to promote African cycling.

In the team’s first Tour de France, when it raced as MTN-Qhubeka in 2015, it included five of its nine starters from Africa. In addition to South Africans Louis Meintjes and the Janse Van Rensburg brothers, the team included Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Teklehaimanot, two groundbreaking riders from Eritrea.

In 2016, even with the arrival of Mark Cavendish and his support riders, the team had room to bring back Teklehaimanot as well as Natnael Berhane, also from Eritrea.

By 2018, with the reduction of the Tour peloton size, teams went from nine to eight riders, and there was more pressure to perform, and less room to promote riders from developing nations. Teams still take new talent to other races, but they miss out on the media spotlight that comes with the Tour.

“It really limits the opportunity to create a story around the riders,” Ryder said. “For a team like ours, that was one of the top reasons why we are involved. And it really heightens the enjoyment of the race to have different riders in the Tour.”

The principal rationale for reducing the bunch from nine to eight riders per team was safety, with the idea that fewer bodies on the road make for safer racing conditions. Others believe that smaller rosters can lead to more dynamic racing.

With the reduction from nine to eight riders, the peloton was seeing teams with top GC candidates leave sprinters at home. Jumbo-Visma, who boasts Champs-Élysées stage-winner Dylan Groenewegen, was initially planning to send him to the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España this year, in part to go all-in for the yellow jersey.

The idea of reducing rosters temporarily — from eight to seven this fall — originated from behind-the-scenes discussions between teams and organizers. Smaller rosters could open space in the grand tours for perhaps two more teams from among the second-tier ProTeam category.

“If it makes sense, I can support it,” said NTT sport manager Bjarne Riis. “In my personal opinion, I still prefer nine riders. The Tour de France is the biggest race, and it’s the most significant in a rider’s career. So the more riders that have a chance to race the Tour the better it is.”

This week, the UCI decided to postpone releasing its full updated racing schedule. Officials want more time to see how conditions develop over the coming weeks before committing to new dates for racing.

So far, only the Tour — set to run from August 29 to September 20 — has firm dates among the major races trying to find space to be rescheduled.

Riis said he would support any initiative that has broad support across the peloton, but cautioned that the sport cannot just think about the interests of the Tour de France.

“This is a special year,” he said. “If you have 25, 26 teams in the peloton, we can get into trouble. The Tour is the biggest race, but we have to realistic. I hope in this period that [Tour owners] ASO and the UCI are also thinking about the other races. The other races have to survive as well.”