• Will fewer riders in the peloton make for exciting racing and a better sport? (Getty)Source: Getty
The drive for smaller team team sizes at World Tour level is here for 2018 and will continue if the new UCI president David Lappartient has his way, but what will it actually acheive?
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Cycling Central
10 Nov 2017 - 7:45 AM  UPDATED 10 Nov 2017 - 7:56 AM

The announcement of reduced team sizes in Grand Tours (from nine riders per team to eight) and in World Tour races (eight to seven) was greeted by many as a positive step forward for the sport. Coming after another Sky-dominated Tour de France and a similarly strong, if slightly less controlled showing at the Vuelta a Espana, it was seen as necessary medicine for the peloton to cure the at times predictable style of racing.

Safety concerns were highlighted as well, after a string of serious crashes in recent years has seen careers cut short, lives lost in the case of Antoine Demoitie and tragic injuries like the six-month coma of Stig Broeckx.

Will the reduction of numbers in the peloton achieve these goals? It seems unlikely.

Firstly, reducing each team by one isn't going to have a massive impact on the size of each field. A Grand Tour field will be reduced from 198 riders to 176 riders. From a competitive standpoint, it won't greatly alter things.

The ratios remain the same, sure, Team Sky have a rider less, but so does the rest of the field, meaning they're less likely to gamble that extra rider in the break or in a suicidal move. It's worth remembering that Team Sky were reduced to eight riders for much of the 2017 Tour de France as well and it didn't stop them.

In terms of safety, the reduction in numbers again, I fear, isn't going to have a massive influence. When in the final dash for a sprint, or the crush for positions at the front of the bunch at a crucial moment of the race, the peloton is going just as compressed with 176 riders as 198.

Crashes will always happen within racing and injuries will never be stamped out entirely until someone invents a personal airbag. You can't change the nature of the sport, but there are a lot more safety-positive steps that can be taken than a simple bit of subtraction.

The real multiplier of damage that we see in pro peloton crashes is the presence of a vehicle in the crash. Demoitie and Broeckx's injuries were the result of motorcycle collisions. Time and again on our roads locally, crashes that kill or severely injure cyclists aren't ones that involve cyclists crashing in groups or by themselves, heavier vehicles are nearly always part of the equation.

It should be a bigger part of the UCI rider safety calculus as well.

So what will the rider reductions achieve? More cyclists out of work. The World Tour squads have already shown this definitively with their team roster announcements.

Consider some of these finalised teams for 2018, some of the top squads in the peloton. BMC Racing will go from 29 riders to 24, Movistar goes from 28 to 25, Team Sunweb from 27 to 24 and Quick-Step Floors have the most drastic reduction of all, from 30 to 24. UCI regulation 2.15.049 provides the minimum requirement of 23 riders for each World Tour team's roster, so the numbers per team won't go lower than that for the moment.

At this stage, it's the lesser riders in the peloton being filtered out into retirement or the lower ranks. There will be a trickle-down effect, more spaces taken up by ex-World Tour rider on Pro-Continental and Continental teams will equal fewer places for developing riders on those squads. Fewer young riders will see the benefit of pursuing a career in cycling, with fewer places on offer and teams more selective about the riders that they take on.

Will it see the desired dilution of talent from the top teams? Maybe, certainly the top teams are going to cut riders, but that leaves more money to renew the contracts of their current riders or chase other teams' stars.
What we should see is much more focused strategies heading into races.

There won't be the opportunities for teams to take a sprinter and a GC guy, or to give some riders a free role. Especially in the big races like the Tour de France where a Top 10 finish is all that some teams aim for and are happy to settle for, it would be impractical to compromise that goal.

So less of the likes of Greg van Avermaet and Phillipe Gilbert being brought along for the chance of a stage win, maybe not them, but a more speculative shot at a win like a Thomas de Gendt, Nathan Haas or Jay McCarthy, for instance, is going to find it hard. Does that sound like more interesting racing?

Plans for further reductions in the peloton are also in the works. Newly appointed UCI boss David Lappartient has been forthright in his opinions on a number of subjects and team numbers are one where he wants to take action.

“At one time there were 10 riders in the teams, and we managed to go down to nine,” Lappartient told French radio station RMC Sport. “But I’m in favour of going further. Six riders per team would be better.”

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So, if the UCI president gets his way, the shift in the balance of power in racing will continue. He may not get his way, of course, the reduction was opposed by a number of teams, with Quick-Step Floors team manager Patrick Lefevere particularly strident in his denouncement.

“I am categorically against it,” Lefevere told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad.

"Why should we continue to have 30 riders per team in 2018? You can continue with five riders less per team. You’ll have 100 cyclists out on the street at the end of 2017, plus 25 caregivers because they will not be needed anymore.”

Certainly, professional cycling doesn't need to be providing make-work jobs. Sport is part of the entertainment industry and races should reflect that. Safety is also rightly a key concern. However, thinking that a reduction in numbers will be the fix-all solution for rider safety and a return to dynamic racing seems to be a naive fix to what are complex issues.