The opening week of the Tour de France was marked by several crashes that took out many riders including several favourites for a podium spot. Nobody wants this, even TV producers who might get a thrill from the carnage realise that decimating the cast of contenders isn’t good for their viewing figures over three weeks. A formal review from the UCI has suggested reducing size as a solution.
There was plenty of speculation in July. Some blamed narrow roads, some said carbon rims, others the size of the bunch. In a way it was a sort of Rorschach test where many saw what they wanted to see in the tangled mix of bodies and bike frames. Many suggestions identified contributory factors but for me it was a mix of factors, including sheer bad luck.
In addition there were more formal attempts to investigate. The UCI charged its Road Commission with looking into this and if their work has not been made public, Tour de France organiser discussed things with the République des Pyrénées newspaper:
We don’t want to use narrow narrow roads and it’s not this which causes the crashes. Look at the crashes in Qatar on the highways. The UCI’s inquiry panel has shown that the protection of leaders has changed. They are brought to the front of the peloton by their eight team mates. Sometimes you see three teams doing this at the same time. 27 riders, that won’t fit. The commission put forward the idea to reduce the team size by one rider, which by the way, would suit me very well. But we’re far from settling this.
Again narrow roads are more risky but I think the main conclusion is sensible. Cutting the size of the teams could make a difference but all the same three teams of eight riders trying to place their leader means 24 riders and that doesn’t fit either.
But Prudhomme might like smaller teams for other reasons. With 22 teams reduced from nine riders to eight that’s going from 198 riders to 176. But if it’s team size that’s the problem them Prudhomme could invite two extra squads of eight men and still have 192 riders. Teams less able to control the race could make for a better show.
The size of the bunch is limited under the rules at 200 riders. In the Giro earlier this year the organisers got UCI permission for an extra team, to go beyond 200.
I think the the pressure to be at the front creates a vicious circle where riders have to be at the front but everyone else wants to be there, especially on strategic stages or when there’s a crosswind blowing. Especially this year there was no prologue to create time gaps meaning everyone in the race was in contention for the yellow jersey.
Shrinking the field size is one answer but cycling is risky and nobody is saying the roads of France should be lined with cotton wool. I wonder if there can’t be more ideas. Like sending some mountain goats to Belgium in April in order to improve their handling skills and perhaps even thinking about the act of crashing itself, to learn “how” to fall because collarbones usually break when a rider sticks their arm out to break the fall. Maybe even some padding but I’m surely thinking too wide?
First week crashes are a feature of the Tour de France but preventing them is a hard task. Remember that crashes happen late in the race too, Craig Lewis and Marco Pinotti crashed out of the Giro d’Italia on Stage 19; in the Tour de France Alexander Vinokourov and Jurgen Van den Broeck survived the first week only to crash out in the second.
Reducing the team size from nine to eight is a potential solution but the benefits of this will be mitigated if more teams are invited and we end up close to 200 riders. There are ways to reduce the risk of crashing but I fear the first week of the Tour de France would still see trouble if we went to seven man teams riding aluminium rims on wide roads with barriers to hold back the crowds.