What impact has reducing team sizes had on racing and tactics?

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

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When writing Full Gas during the 2017 season and talking to team directors about changes that the UCI were either making or proposing, one of their regular complaints was that the reduction in team sizes from nine to eight riders in Grand Tours and eight to seven in other major events would neither improve safety in the bunch nor make for less controlled and, therefore, more exciting racing.

At the Criterium du Dauphiné in June, I canvassed the opinion of a few directeurs on whether the change has made any difference, and most insisted that the change had had some impact on racing, but not in the way that the UCI had hoped.

“We’ve noticed the effect that it has had,” said Lotto-Soudal DS Marc Sergeant. “Everyone wants to protect their seven riders, or eight if it’s a Grand Tour, for as long as possible. We’ve been a bit more conservative when it comes to committing riders to chasing behind attacks and other teams have as well.

“It wasn’t a problem before putting one guy up at the front of the bunch and effectively sacrificing him in order to bring back the breakaway. But now we find ourselves asking: ‘Do we really have to do this, sacrifice a guy?’ Other teams are asking the same question and holding back from doing so. At the Giro, teams did eventually commit to chasing behind breaks and the result of that was that there was only one win from a breakaway. But that tendency towards greater conservatism was evident.

“It’s interesting to see what kind of rider teams are leaving out. Generally, it’s a guy who’s got to pull, and that means that we have to say to three or four guys that they will have the chance to win a stage, but they will also have to pull for André [Greipel] on some days as well. We can swap them in and out on different days. So if there’s a stage that suits Thomas De Gendt, you save him the day before.”

While Sergeant admitted that his team won’t be taking a GC rider to the Tour de France, but will focus on sprints with Greipel and breakaways with the likes of De Gendt, Team Sky are obviously adopting a different strategy. With Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas as co-leaders, the British team has a dilemma when it comes to selecting the riders to support them.

“Here at the Dauphiné, for instance, we could only select seven riders so you have to decide whether to leave out a rouleur or a climber. It depends what your objectives are, but I think most GC teams choose to leave a rouleur at home,” said Sky DS Servais Knaven. “You have to decide who’s going to do what job where. You can include decent climbers who work on the flat, but if you do that and they have to work for nine days on the flat, you can’t expect them to be at 100 per cent when the race gets into the mountains.”

Ag2r-La Mondiale, the French team that’s home to one of Froome’s biggest rivals in Romain Bardet, are also likely to sacrifice a rouleur when selecting their final eight for the Tour. With seven names already all but fixed, the team’s performance coach, Jean-Baptiste Quiclet, revealed: “The choice of the rider who’ll get the eighth place will depend  on how we want to race. It’s a strategic choice between a rouleur and a climber. Do you opt for an extra climber and being less potent in the team time trial. Or the opposite?” As Quiclet indicated during the Dauphiné, Ag2r will line up at the Tour with four climbers and three rouleurs to support Bardet’s bid for the yellow jersey.

Typically, QuickStep’s Brian Holm has a slightly take on the issue, one that highlights a significant concern of many of his colleagues. “I’ve not really noticed much difference at all, and I can’t say that it’s really affected us so far. However, it might do at the Tour if we have to chase down a break to set up a sprint,” said the Danish DS.

“There was lots of talk about the move being made to improve safety, but I noticed at Catalunya and the Tour of the Basque Country that the organisers invited more teams so that didn’t help with that issue. In fact, if they really want to tackle the issue of safety they need to look at the number of motorbikes in races. There are too many of them and they’re interfering with the racing as well, pacing the bunch back or giving breakaways a bit of a tow.

“There are races when we know that the motorbikes will have an influence on the racing and we have to factor that into our tactics, tell the riders to use the bikes when they can because everyone else does. There was one race last year where I went to the commissaire to complain about the bikes pacing the bunch back up to the break, and he just said, ‘There’s a bike up at the front as well.’”

L’Équipe looked into this issue in their issue published on the opening day of the Tour, and most of the team directors canvassed felt that the reduction in the number of riders in major events hadn’t produced any significant difference with regard to safety and appeared to have made teams more conservative in their approach to racing.

“There hasn’t been any drop in the number of crashes, the road isn’t any larger or smaller. When there’s only space for 10 riders, there’s isn’t going to be enough for 160 or 140,” said Groupama-FDJ boss Marc Madiot. Asked whether the move had resulted in any change to tactics, to the stronger teams having less ability or desire to control racing, Madiot commented: “Teams are taking more time to think, but there’s more control of breakaways and it starts earlier.

“A sprinter’s team like ours doesn’t give a breakaway five or six minutes any more. It’s paradoxical, but it seems that things have become more controlled. What has changed is that when there are several strong riders in the break, it becomes difficult for the peloton. There is, however, no hope now for breaks that are undertaken with TV exposure in minded – they’re doomed. Everyone has become more prudent in how they manage their tactics.”

Emmanuel Hubert, whose Fortuneo-Samsic team is one of the most regular participants in breakaways, was one of the few to offer a more positive take on the initiative. “I think it’s a good initiative because it’s produced more dynamism and it’s going to upset the different strategies that have been is use over the past few seasons. Since the start of the season, around a dozen races that should have finished with a sprint have seen a breakaway or a solo rider go the finish. When you’ve got eight or seven riders, you think twice before getting your team to work.”

Interestingly, some managers also suggested that the move has resulted in an increase in the importance of strong all-rounders and has worked against the domestiques who have do substantial and often unseen spadework for their leaders early on in races. “I think that with this change all-rounders like Michal Kwiatkowski  who can ride in the high mountains, on the flat, on the cobbles and in echelons are going to be of much greater value in a smaller team. In the future, we’re going to see more and more of this kind of rider. They’re going to be very important in teams of this size.”

 

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