Road

Insiders say smaller isn’t better for classics peloton

Most of pro cycling's directors and riders say smaller team sizes aren't improving the classics or making the racing safer.

GENT, Belgium (VN) — Smaller rosters aren’t necessarily delivering more fireworks or safer conditions in the early days of the northern classics.

The jury is still out among the peloton midway through Flanders week on a controversial new UCI rule to shrink rosters from eight to seven starters for one-day classics. In fact, one veteran sport director suggests it is having the opposite effect.

“Until now, I cannot see that cycling is more exciting since the reduction of the teams,” said Dimension Data director Rolf Aldag. “It doesn’t make the race more open because teams are making sure the breaks are smaller so to not lose control. I am not too positive about it.”

One of the big talking points coming into 2018 is the rule that sliced team rosters from eight to seven in one-days as well as one-week stage races. Later this year, teams will race the grand tours with eight instead of nine starters.

Backers of the rule change insist smaller teams should induce safer race conditions as well as loosen team dominance in the major races. Logic would suggest that, but up to now, not everyone is convinced.

“So far in the classics, I didn’t feel it,” said EF Education First-Drapac sport director Andreas Klier. “On paper, yes, if you have a super rider like [Peter] Sagan, you could create a problem because you have one less rider to pull. Just read the number: eight is better than seven. Maybe in Flanders and Roubaix we’ll see more.”

Instead of delivering fireworks and safer race conditions, the rule seems to be having unintended impacts on the peloton.

Over the winter, many teams took scissors to their rosters, slashing not only the number of riders but also support staff such as soigneurs, mechanics, and sport directors to accommodate the new rule. Squad selection is also tightened, meaning that teams are less prone to bring fresh faces or perhaps a GC rider to the classics because they do not want to forfeit one of their precious roster slots.

“Yes, it reduces the number of riders on the start line, but it doesn’t guarantee that the race will be any safer,” said BMC manager Jim Ochowicz. “It’s an experiment. No one can give you an exact answer on what the outcome will be. Everyone has an opinion, but no one really knows.”

When it comes to safety, riders keep crashing, and many say it’s due to dangerous course design and too many vehicles in the race entourage rather than too many racers.

“The road remains the same, the conditions remain the same, and the mentality of the riders remain the same,” said Kiwi star Jack Bauer of Mitchelton-Scott. “I cannot see it being any safer. We take some crazy risks these days, and that will remain the same.”

Look no further than Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), who has suffered three major crashes this spring with none of them involving other riders. At Abu Dhabi, a race vehicle stopped unexpectedly on the rollout, knocking him to the ground. At Tirreno-Adriatico, he crashed after hitting a pothole during a team time trial, and at Milano-Sanremo, he slammed into an unmarked traffic divider.

The other argument is that fewer riders per team should open racing dynamics, and prevent deeper teams such as BMC Racing and Quick-Step from dominating the tactics.

If early season racing is anything to go by, both teams continue to succeed. Quick-Step especially has not missed a step so far in this classics campaign. With the exception of Milano-Sanremo, Quick-Step continues to purr along during the spring one-days with one fewer rider at the line.

Quick-Step
Quick-Step Floors controlled E3 Harelbeke with most of the team on the front as the hills came on in quick succession. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | www.brakethroughmedia.com

“The Quick-Step block was still there, so it hasn’t changed it that much. They are very strong,” said Bahrain-Merida sport director Tristan Hoffman. “There should be less control, but the peloton is still very big. For the moment I don’t see a difference.”

Riders on the second-tier teams behind Quick-Step, BMC Racing, and Bora-Hansgrohe are hoping for a bounce in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. So far, all three of the favored classics teams have been present deeper in the races with several friendly jerseys.

“It’s good for us. We don’t have eight super-strong riders like Quick-Step,” said Ag2r La Mondiale’s Oliver Naesen. “It’s more difficult to sacrifice one or two guys very early in the race because it weighs on the team. I think in the end of the big races [Flanders and Roubaix], it will be the same. It will be every man for himself.”

Dimension Data’s Aldag said some of the unintended consequences stand out for him. For example, with seven riders, there’s one less spot for a younger promising rider to have a chance to race to gain experience or to bring a GC rider to gain confidence on the cobbles. Movistar can bring Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa to the races, but BMC Racing isn’t letting Richie Porte get a taste of the cobbles. And looking ahead to the grand tours, Aldag said the reduction to eight means it will be harder for teams to bring both a sprinter and a GC captain.

There is an uncertainty as teams and riders quickly adjust to the new reality. As Aldag suggested, it appears larger, more threatening breakaways are not being given much rope. We’ve seen that in both the one-days and week-long races such as Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya. Breaks are still getting up the road — with escape artists like Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) still capable of breaking free of the peloton’s clutches — but so far we haven’t seen big breaks given much space to move.

De Gendt made his winning despite a headwind in the final kilometers of stage 3 at Volta a Catalunya. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Perhaps the elastic will break going into Flanders and Roubaix.

“I think more than everybody thinks,” said Trek-Segafredo director Dirk Demol of the rule’s impact. “When you have to pull, you have to sacrifice one, two or even three riders, and that immediately reduces the number of riders you can have in the final. For the favorite teams, it’s a handicap. You have to make an adjust and calculate.”

The looming monuments at Ronde and Roubaix could deliver the surprises the rules were intended to produce. Perhaps BMC and Quick-Step might have burned their collective matches too early, and they won’t have the fresh legs to chase when the attacks come.

For riders like Bauer, the monuments are about who has the legs to win. Deep into the final hour of racing, it’s every man for themselves. Having an extra teammate is a huge bonus. With one fewer at the line, the stakes are only heightened.

“No one’s ever raced the classics with seven before,” Bauer said. “It’s balls to the walls in the monuments. You always notice when a man is gone through a crash or for whatever reason.”