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5 ways to spice up bike racing

Andrew Hood presents some ideas on how to make professional road cycling a bit more exciting for fans.

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Race organizers kicked the hornet’s nest last week with its unilateral decision to reduce the peloton by one rider across nearly the entire WorldTour. While still not yet officially approved, the idea to reduce the number of riders per team is a tantalizing one. The outline has gained traction because race promoters say fewer riders would not only make for a safer peloton, but would heighten drama in the races as well.

Safety questions aside, organizers are clearly taking a shot at breaking the stranglehold that teams like Sky or Etixx – Quick-Step hold over grand tours and the spring classics. Less riders means less control. In theory, that delivers a more exciting race.

What else could be introduced to create more provocative race dynamics? First, you have to buy into the idea that races now are somehow boring or unattractive. In many ways, the 2016 racing season was the most exciting in recent history, with thrilling battles across the WorldTour calendar, so why mess with a good thing?

Sometimes cycling’s biggest handicap is its resistance to change and its instinct of sticking with tradition. However, for those looking to spice things up within professional cycling, there are a lot of ideas kicking around, some of which have already been implemented. Here are a five fixes that could work:

1. Spike power meters

Many argue that today’s racing is too controlled and too robotic, and they point to one major culprit: power meters. The technology has revolutionized cycling, allowing coaches and racers to train and race with meticulous precision, but some say too much so. With the help of power meters and ever-improving technology, racing can be calibrated in ways unimaginable a generation ago. Echoing the call from a decade ago to ban race radios, some, including big-time riders like Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana, think power meters should not be used in competition.

Pros: There is a reasonable argument that power meters dull the element of surprise, especially in grand tours, because riders can better gauge their efforts based on real-time information from their power numbers. Races have almost become formulaic as a stage unfolds like a spreadsheet on a training program. Power meters act like a security blanket, allowing riders to know if they’re in the red, or if their opponent can truly sustain an attack. Take away power meters, and a rider will have to revert to more gut instinct and tactical guile than stone-cold data.

Cons: Most riders insist they don’t “race by numbers,” and many don’t use them at all. Many bristle at any suggestion of limiting technology, and they counter that power meters and other metrics should be incorporated into the TV viewing experience to fully engage the public. And even if power meters are removed from bikes, what’s to stop sport directors and coaches to pass along calculations to riders via race radio? The upshot: instead of fighting against technology, embrace it.

The takeaway: At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what a power meter might suggest if you don’t have the legs to back it up. It could be an interesting experiment, however, to take them off the bikes in a few races, just to see if the racing dynamics change in any discernible way.

2. Shorter, more explosive stages

The Vuelta a España has been leading this charge for more than a decade. The Giro d’Italia picked up on it, with short, punchy finales, wild descents over gravel roads, and jigsaw-like profiles. Even the Tour de France, the last bastion of tradition in the sport, has embraced the notion of “shorter is better.”

Pros: Short in favor of long works on several levels. First, it rewards aggression, with less pavement for dominant teams to throttle the action. Second, it’s ideal for TV. What was the best stage of 2016? The raid to Formigal, when Movistar and Tinkoff caught out Chris Froome, opening the door for Nairo Quintana’s victory. The distance? 118km. The race time? Under three hours. Boom!

Cons: By turning its back on the tradition that cycling, at its core, is about suffering and endurance, the sport’s modern makeover could go too far. Riders are already complaining that stage races are simply too hard, with nearly universal agreement that the 2016 Vuelta, a race packed with an unending series of novelties, was the hardest grand tour they’ve ever raced. Too much gimmickry could undercut the history and heritage of cycling.

The takeaway: There is certainly room for old-school, six-hour stages, and in fact, the rules require it simply to hit grand tour distances. Next year’s Tour de France seems to have fully embraced this “short is the new long” tenet. There must be a balance between heritage and innovation in grand tours, but in today’s shrinking attention span, short and explosive is working.

3. Smaller teams

This is the one that made headlines last week, and perhaps it’s the most provocative and controversial proposal. Critics say the throttling control of big teams is sucking the emotion of out of racing. When teams are so strong and so deep, the real battles are often reduced to just a few final kilometers of a mountaintop summit or the final throes of a classic.

Pros: Many point to this year’s Vuelta a España as evidence that even the strongest GC rider like Chris Froome is vulnerable when the team is hobbled. Of course, what happened in the Vuelta has nothing to do about reducing teams, but just seeing that mano-a-mano battle between the GC stars stripped away from the protective cocoon of their teams is what more people want to see. Strip away some of the strength of the team, and you will see that raw, old-school racing everyone wants. How to do that? Smaller teams.

Cons: The WorldTour teams loathe the idea of trimming the number of riders. First off, teams like control, in part because they’ve invested millions of dollars to buy and train their GC stars. They don’t want to see a year’s worth of work thrown out the window because of an echelon, a crash, or a mid-race hiccup. Several team managers have also pointed out that one fewer rider during a grand tour — eight instead of nine — would create unseen challenges. Crashes and illnesses inevitably take their toll (last year, only seven teams finished the Tour with all nine starters, and that’s counting Etixx – Quick-Step despite Tony Martin pulling out on the Champs-Élysées), so managers have a legitimate worry about having enough warm bodies to get through three weeks of racing. And some have suggested that removing one rider per team would make it harder for teams to come to the Tour with a multi-pronged approach of riding for GC and sprints. Cycling’s changed, but it’s always been a team sport.

Takeaway: In fact, the idea of reducing the field by one racer per team might not be enough to deliver the desired effect. Having one fewer rider during the one-day classics and week-long stage races likely will not make that much of a discernible difference, and some suggest that GC teams would create alliances if the grand tour squads are reduced, negating any desired impact. Smaller squads would also mean more room for more teams in the peloton, allowing organizers to invite more wildcard teams (that’s another can of worms). But if teams were whacked to seven or even six starters per squad in grand tours, that would certainly deliver something wholly unexpected and thrilling. Everyone wants to see the GC riders attacking each other, not just in the final few kilometers of Alpe d’Huez but over the Galibier as well. Why stop at eight?

4. Ease enforcement of the 3km rule

It happens every summer: the peloton’s top GC riders line up for what’s hyped to be the battle of the century, only to have one or two major contenders crash out in the first week. Talk about a buzzkill. Crashes are part of cycling and there’s no way to avoid all of them, but there is one easy step to mitigate a lot of the tension and stress during the sprint stages to keep everyone in the race until the good stuff deep into the course: ease up on enforcement of splits at the finish line.

As it stands now, the 3km rule for transition stages (it does not apply to time trials and uphill finales for obvious reasons) is reasonable enough and makes sense. No time is docked for mechanicals or crashes within 3km to the line, but any splits that open up in the bunch are taken at the line (though some argue that the distance is a bit arbitrary, and could be extended to perhaps 5km to go for mechanicals and crashes).

Fair enough, right? Not quite. The real problem with this rule — and the reason why GC riders are “getting in the way” of the sprinters — is how it’s applied when it comes to the splits. The UCI race juries are wildly inconsistent on how they determine a gap. It changes from race to race and even stage to stage. Splits have been taken at the line even when there’s been a crash within the final 3km, when everyone thought they were “safe.” This inconsistency drives teams crazy and universally amps up the tension across the peloton.

Pros: Officially, one full second between bikes is large enough to warrant a split, yet the time gaps are not measured from where the gap opens up, but rather the first rider in the front group and the first rider in the second group where the split happened. So that means simply someone losing the wheel in the final 200m can cost a GC rider five, eight, or 12 seconds if they get caught on the wrong side of the split. That’s why all the GC stars keep fighting to stay in the front even in sprints. Give the peloton more breathing room at the line and the problem is solved.

Cons: Some say one solution is to take the official time at 3km to go, and then everyone can sit up and ride safely to the line while the sprint trains do their thing. That might help, but it could serve only to move the bottleneck to 3km to go and even might create an odd dynamic where nearly everyone in the peloton is sitting up except the three or four teams devoted to sprints, hardly the exciting racing everyone wants to see (not to mention sandbaggers saving their legs for a next-day attack). And jury decisions are always subjective. What constitutes a split varies on the conditions of the day.

Takeaway: This fix is easy, and tackles both safety and race dynamics in one swoop. Give the peloton more breathing room in the sprint finishes and don’t measure splits unless it is an obvious gap of two or even three bike lengths. Tour officials already quietly pushed this in 2016, so expect more of it next season.

5. Add more time bonuses

There was a “purist” movement a few years ago among Tour de France organizers to have the winner based on their “true time.” There were no time bonuses awarded at all, delivering the yellow jersey to Paris with their exact time of racing. In a certain way, there is an almost purist quality to this idea, but, man, was it boring.

Pros: Time bonuses have been part of bike racing almost since its inception. The practice is a highly effective and economical way to liven up any race. Put time bonuses at the intermediate sprints or the finish line and everyone will go for it, from the sprinters looking for a day or two in yellow to the GC riders looking to extract an extra ounce of pain.

Cons: The downside to time bonuses is that they can favor a certain type of rider and can make for some confusing finish-line calculus for fans watching on TV. And it does seem unfair to lose valuable seconds by finishing literally inches behind another rider after flailing up a 20km hors catégorie finish. Though GC battles in grand tours are rarely decided by time bonuses, some say they unfairly tilt the balance toward speedier finishers, so why bother?

Takeaway: In light of today’s ever-tighter GC battles, time bonuses have settled in at 10, 6, and 4 seconds at the line for transition stages (with no bonuses in time trials or uphill finales), but that hasn’t always been the case. Until fairly recently, there were time bonuses of 20 seconds and even up to one minute. So why not mix things up even more? You could offer time bonuses on mid-race mountain passes, or something special like double bonuses at the line on Bastille Day or over the top of Cima Coppi. That would certainly provoke movement among the GC riders.

Here’s how it would look

Imagine a Tour de France peloton of seven-rider teams, racing without power meters, with all the GC contenders healthy and still in the race because of easing of the 3km rule, lining up for a 114km, three-climb summit finale up Alpe d’Huez, with a double-whammy, 30-second time bonus waiting at the finish line. Who wouldn’t watch that?