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Movistar boss Unzué calls for replacement riders at grand tours

Eusebio Unzué proposes the idea of replacing injured or sick riders with healthy ones in the first week of grand tours.

Just as the peloton faces reduced teams for 2018, Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué has a rather unorthodox idea: bench players.

Or, more precisely, replacement riders.

Unzué reasons if officials are going to force teams to race grand tours next season with just eight riders, he argues that teams should be allowed to replace injured or ill riders.

“I’d like to see with riders who might crash out in the first week could be replaced,” Unzué said at a Movistar camp last Friday in Pamplona. “To have two or three riders ready to replace those who are injured, just as occurs in any other sport. Or have a rider sit out a day or two if they are ill?”

Unzué’s comments came as journalists asked him about new rules that limit teams to eight riders for grand tours and seven for one-day classics and shorter stage races next season.

“The teams don’t want to reduce the rosters, rather it was a decision taken by the UCI at the insistence of the race organizers,” Unzué said. “They seem to think it will create more spectacle, and it’s a decision I respect, but we will see if it works out that way or not. It’s not such a bad idea to reduce the number of riders, but what’s abnormal in a sport so demanding and with an accident rate as high as ours is that there are not solutions to mitigate the loss of riders, and race on equal terms.”

It wasn’t the first time that Unzué has floated the idea of having riders “come off the bench” to replace injured or sick riders who are forced to abandon the race.

The notion, of course, flies in the face of racing tradition. Part of the allure of grand tours is how riders overcome individual hurdles to survive the rigors of three weeks of racing. Cycling’s tradition is largely founded on not only racing against rivals but also struggling against the elements, the topography, and health issues that come with the rigors of open-road bike racing. Not to mention the fact that bike racing is a timed event, with the fastest rider across the line declared the winner.

Unzué doesn’t quite see it through those romantic lenses. He’s thinking more about the investment of tens of millions of dollars that teams put into a race like the Tour de France that can be wiped out in an instant with a crash or illness.

With the eight-rider grand tour teams for 2018, Unzué thinks it could be a good idea to at least consider having extra warm bodies on call.

“I think everyone should be able to fight in the same conditions,” he continued. “Cycling ought to show a human side. Since we’re not allowed to replace anyone, we have riders who destroy themselves, doing 200km stages in horrible conditions, at these speeds … why not have the option that a rider under doctor’s recommendation be able to sit out for a day or two to recover?

“Why not have everyone arrive to Paris with the same amount of riders?” he continued. “Why not try something new? Everyone is talking about making things safer, so why not let the riders who crash out in the first week be replaced? It’s hard to arrive to Paris when you have nine starters. I’ve ended one Tour with only four riders. I don’t know that [reducing team rosters] will produce more spectacle.”

Without giving too much detail, Unzué was insinuating the option to replace support riders. The GC of any race is taken by time, so the top contenders wouldn’t be able to sit out a few days to rest up for a big mountain stage.

Of course, Unzué’s proposal is riddled with holes. Giving teams the ability to replace riders would open up the peloton to tactical moves of having big, classics-style riders fall “sick” after the first week, only to be replaced with fresh skinny climbers for the mountain stages. Would only riders who were not replaced be allowed to race for GC? And what about who has the “right” to challenge for a stage win? It would hardly be fair for a rider fresh off the bench to ride for victory at Alpe d’Huez against riders who’ve been struggling since the start of the race.

Unzué was on a roll. He already hinted that Movistar might bring all three of its big stars — Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, and Mikel Landa — to the Tour.

Other Unzuéisms on the day included:

Salary caps: “The idea of team budgets has its own logic, but it would be even better to establish the salaries of the riders so that they are more equal. Today, there is no limit to what teams can spend, so there is a big fight in the marketplace to sign the top stars. And a bit of the leftovers go to the others. The budgets increase, so the salaries grow. There is no rules or limits.”

Cobbles don’t belong: “It’s a big worry,” Unzué said of what awaits the Tour peloton in stage 9. “Do they belong in the Tour? The classics see a special breed of riders who train for them their whole careers. How much spectacle will the stage add? But even more so, how much will it take away? In 2015, yes, everyone survived them, but in 2014, the cobbles really marked the race. For me, [next] year’s Tour has two starts. The first on day one and the second on stage 10.”

Froome is king: “Maybe he wasn’t as brilliant [this year] as in other years, but he what he was able to do was to be most consistent across the TTs and mountains. And perhaps he came into the Tour with a little less at his normal peak because wanted to win the Vuelta as well. Today, we are in a period when there are so many riders capable of winning the Tour. It’s a very high-level peloton right now, perhaps the best we’ve ever seen. And Froome is the best right now. One has to recognize that.”