How to make the Tour better: Require smaller teams

The Vuelta was proof of a concept that has been bounced around for years: If we drop grand tour teams' sizes, the racing will be more entertaining.

Chris Froome seemed so alone. He looked left, right, then swung off the front in an exasperated arc. Nobody pulled through. Ahead, Nairo Quintana’s red jersey continued to ride away, 90 seconds and then two minutes.

Stage 15 to Formigal was the end of Froome’s Vuelta. He didn’t admit it at the time — ”We’re going to keep fighting all the way,” he said — but it was the end. He lost the Vuelta because he had no team, because when he swung off the front nobody was there to take up the chase. The Vuelta’s 15th stage was, in a way, a proof of a concept that has been bounced around for years: If we drop grand tour team size from nine to eight or even seven riders and the racing will be more entertaining.

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The stage was an illustration of a Sky without firepower. It was proof that the most exciting stage racing occurs when things spiral out of control, and proof that the lack of a dominant team instigates that spiral.

It was confirmation, too, that the monotony of the 2016 Tour de France was no fault of Froome’s. The man’s a fighter, no serious cycling fan can doubt that after the Peyresourde. No, a tedious Tour is not caused by a strong team leader or by his power meter or by the race radio in his ear. Those things were all present at the fantastically exciting Vuelta. Tedium is caused by a team with the strength to quash chaos.

This strength is not Sky’s fault. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Or change it.

Smaller teams is not an idea that managers like Sky’s Dave Brailsford or BMC’s Jim Ochowicz like very much. Brailsford told British journalist Jeremy Whittle after the Vuelta that the focus should be on slimming the calendar so that more teams can show up at full strength (to paraphrase, he thinks the other teams should just be better.)

Ochowicz once reminded me that teams almost always lose one to three riders through a grand tour, and if they started with eight it wouldn’t take much to drop a team down to six or even five. His tone indicated that he saw this as unacceptable. But is it, really? Or would it just add drama?

And isn’t that what we want from sport? There’s no intrinsic value in guys riding around France for a month, after all.

The eight-man team concept was floated by Tour director Christian Prudhomme this summer. So this discussion is not purely hypothetical.

Dropping grand tour teams to eight or even seven riders would not suddenly give Froome’s all-powerful Tour de France team a case of the end-of-season blues that seemed to plague his Vuelta squad. It is no magic bullet. He’ll still likely have the strongest team in the race. But it would help diminish the stranglehold of any dominant team.

The Tour proved that control is the enemy of good racing and the Vuelta proved that chaos is its friend. Both races had the same protagonists, the same power meters, the same race radios, but only one of the two races lacked a dominant team.

I know which I’d rather watch.