UCI and Tour de France considering smaller teams

Tour de France crash

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.

Maxim Iglinskiy meets a spectator

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.

26 thoughts on “UCI and Tour de France considering smaller teams”

  1. How about just making the Euskatel riders ride at the back of the bunch until the climb starts. Matty Lloyd’s comment about ‘bloody carrots’ springs to mind whenever there’s a bit of wind/rain/corner/narrow roads/furniture…

  2. I think you pointed out at the time that if you look at the number of crashes each year, there will be essentially random spikes in the pattern of data and this might well be one. Reducing the size of the peloton might well help, but even if they do this and the number of crashes drops dramatically it still doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship.

  3. Leaning to fall properly is completely under estimated as an injury prevention technique.

    Send them all to the judo dojo to lean about rolling break falls i.e. tucking your arm and shoulder in as you fall.

    15 years of competitive rugby, five years of uncompetitive cycling and only one shoulder injury!!

    The idea of more, smaller teams also intuitively appeals.

  4. Cant see how reducing teams from 8 to 9 would really make a difference Especially if it could mean another team being invited… surely that would just mean another team trying to get to the front. It’s not like all 9 men try to get to the front unless you were HTC where other teams tended to push you to the front.

  5. Crashes are a fact of life in racing.

    When racing I would expect to have 3 or 4 falls a year. In the 6 years since I stopped racing I have not had a crash. Lots of crashes happen in amateur races with no or little team work taking place. I think that the number of riders on a team is not relevant, the number of riders in the bunch is. Smaller bunch less crashes. When you get 200 riders hurtling along at 50kmh and you extend your elbow and you touch another rider, or your front wheel is 1 or 2 cm from the back wheel of the rider in front, the margin for error is tiny and crashes will happen.

    For me the two biggest factors are the size of the bunch and the sum of luck, good and bad. 2011 had a lot of bad luck for team leaders. In my experience crashes are more likely to happen on large open roads where the bunch is at speed and tightly packed. When is the last time there was a crash in the autobus or in a breakaway group, they are very rare. I never crashed on a narrow road where the bunch was strung out.

    I totally agree with Martin W above. Lies, damned lies and statistics.

  6. “collarbones usually break when a rider sticks their arm out to break the fall” – well I was once told never to stick my hand out to break a fall as you’ll break your wrist/scaphoid which takes a lot longer to heal than a collar bone. It’s only what I was told, mind!

    Good points above about Judo. Roger Hammond (ex-World Junior CX champion) used to do Judo
    and he claimed that it helped him to crash safely. There is a fine line between breaking your collar bone and getting away scott free. On stage 6 of this year’s Tour of Britain a crash took out a colliding Geraint Thomas and Ian Bibby. They both landed at the same time and in similar style but Thomas got up and carried on, Bibby did not.

  7. Before considering anything so lame as reducing race size, the UCI and the Tour de France should consider re-educating the media following the race on proper safety directions around riders, so that next time Flecha and Hoogerland are ahead of them, the driver in the car following behind decides to either…

    #.) Break hard!
    or #.) Smash into the tree!
    or #.) Veer of the road!
    and therefore not #.) Hit the rider!

    …bored “important” people pretending to be doing their jobs, get real!

    Daniel Moszkowicz. (TKofC)

  8. I say reduce the ProTour (or whatever you want to call it) to just 12 squads. With the current exit of so many this year it should be simple to pick the 12 best-financed teams. Then allow the race promoters to add 4 wild card squads in their national/sporting interest. 144 riders is plenty, 200 is simply part of the cycling “bubble” which has popped, like the housing values in the USA. The 12 “ProTour” slots would be much more valuable this way and just might help with continuity while the smaller peloton (but not much different than in the golden age of the sport) may make for less congestion on the roads. Pro cycling will NEVER return to the glory days but there’s plenty of room for improvement if the stake holders truly care about the sport more than their own short-sighted self-interests. But I won’t be holding my breath!

  9. I’m sure there’s something in learning how to fall – I’ve heard people argue that track-trained cyclists, who have more experience of falling, tend to come out of crashes better than others. Not sure if anyone’s got the stats to prove it though.

    I’d always bought that line about cyclists breaking their collarbones because they put their arm out to stop their fall. At least I did until I hit a pothole and came off my bike during the summer. It happened so fast I didn’t even notice the time between being upright and hitting the ground, but the scrapes on me and my gear indicated that I landed squarely on my right shoulder and not my arm. Collarbone snapped dramatically.

    If you look at the Bibby/Thomas crash, Bibby lands on his shoulder, Thomas lands on his back. I suspect that’s the difference. The track theorist might argue that Thomas is an old hand on the boards, so knew how to fall, but I’d be interested to know whether in that crash either had time to react or whether it was pure dumb luck. Some crashes you see coming, others hit you out of the blue.

  10. I want the UCI to allow teams to use disc brakes on road bikes. I don’t have any idea whether it would help with crashes, but I’m personally interested in the idea of disc brakes on road bikes, and I know that they will never be readily accessible to the mass market unless they become UCI legal. I have high hopes that legalization of disc brakes for cyclocross will spur some interesting new technology. I wonder whether the UCI realizes how much their arbitrary and antiquated rules hold back innovation in bike technology.

    Aside from that, I’m in favor of smaller teams. The teams are stronger and overall level of competition is higher than it used to be, making for more controlled races. Getting rid of a rider per team might make things both safer and more interesting for the fans, and possibly less controversial than getting rid of radios.

  11. >I wonder whether the UCI realizes how much their arbitrary and antiquated rules hold back innovation in bike technology.
    I’m sure you’re riding an aero recumbert, aren’t you? If not, why do you hold back on innovation? 😉

  12. Great idea to start with less riders but why by only one? That only brings down the total number by 18. I understand that if you reduce the teams by more than one rider you would maybe have to also cut down the distance.

  13. The TDF used to have 10 man teams, 12/13 of them, there are way too many riders in many events nowadays. Velo Peloton and Larry T have hit the nail on the head.

  14. I think the best way to avoid crashes in the Tour’s first week is to have something to sort out the GC pecking order early on. And early summit finish? Some GC hopefuls will lose enough time in an early summit finish and then they won’t be fighting to ride at the front every day. When was the last time there was a significant uphill finish in the first 5 days? It usually comes around stage 7 -8. Also, another way to do this is to make the TTT more important. It is usually stage 2-4, make it significant like 50 km or more and do not have stupid rules to limit losses. I thought the 2011 TTT was ridiculously short and insignificant at 23 km.

    There is no doubt though, teams do race differently than they did 15 years ago with respect to positioning leaders on the early stages. Road width does not matter, and reducing the team size by 1 rider each will not make a significant difference IMO.

  15. With 3 weeks of hard racing you need all 9 in your team to be able to make it to Paris in relatively good shape! Correct me if I’m wrong, but are there not less crashes in Paris-Roubaix, on more narrow and dangerous ‘roads’?!

    As for the Judo remark; being a master of Chinese Wudang Kung Fu I do agree that martial arts training will train you to be able to absorb hard impacts better! Then again, that training comes off the back of the understanding that our muscles and bones are essentially soft, contrary to the typical Western belief that trained muscles, and bones, are hard! Just not true! Yet, how can I smash cement blocks with my bare hands and not feel pain or register any injury? Mind-body connection is the answer to a large extent! And it has been proven by science! If you see the road surface as hard, then your impact with it will be hard! Simple, but not simplistic!

    But it does bring us to the key element…mind!

    The TDF is always a nervous affair for teams/riders, even for those who have done the Tour before! When asked for comment about the 1st weeks spate of crashes Wiggins replied that everyone is ultra nervous due to it being the most important race of the year! You would think that with so much race experience, and having done the Tour a number of times many riders would have gotten past that nervousness and be more settled! When South Africa returned to international Rugby competition, after years of absence due to anti-apartheid sporting sanctions, they had a sports psychologist, and went they walked on the field they were calm, when under pressure during a game they were calm! After a few weeks of hard rugby they were world champs, and many attributed their mental composure during the tournament as a key to their winning!

    Which ultimately brings me to, not the riders, but to the team bosses and sports directors! It is their job to make sure the riders are not too ‘jacked up’, but if you’ve seen docu footage of pre-race talk in the bus you may note that many sports directors/bosses are lacking in communication skills!

  16. Last summer I was riding with Belgian former pro, Erik van Lancker, and we talked quite a bit about the modern pros – especially since he had returned to the sport as a DS for Garmin – and the spate of crashes.

    It was interesting that he said that riders in his day (late 80s and early 90s) used to crash just as much but for whatever reason rarely sustained such severe injuries, particularly head wounds.

  17. To echo a few opinions above, judo is unbelievably good training for anybody, but especially for active people. My training began as a 10y.o (pay attention parents!) lasting only 18mths then going on to play full-contact Australian Rules football for the next 10yrs. Being comfortable with falling hard, hitting and being hit hard by other footballers provides a physical confidence and self-preserving reflexes still with me in middle-age. Every time I’ve gone over the handlebars instincts have kicked in and I’ve managed to walk (ridden) away each time. Same goes for the time I fell from the top of a roof. . . again I walked (slowly) away.

    But as @philip s points out, sometime it happens so fast it’s difficult say know exactly how much reflexes come into play? However, the point @Darren made about the mind was relevant, in that if you are comfortable with hitting hard objects the fear of impact is removed, which is what I believe causes people to put their arm/elbow/hand out to break their fall.

  18. Perhaps modifying the rules for splits in the peloton would be an answer. Maybe for some of the early sprint stages the 3-km rule for crashes at the finish should become the 100-km rule. Remove some of the incentive/requirement for GC contenders to ride at the front for a sprint stage with no real bearing on the GC.

  19. Seems to me that reducing by one rider a team isn’t going to change the crash dynamic of everyone needing to be at the front on narrow roads. It would certainly help but not solve the issue. I think it’s more the planning of the route, from what I can understand. There needs to be a stage in the first week that begins to sort out the GC guys so everyone knows their place in the race. I guess you need a mountain or a longer TT to calm everything down.

  20. I cannot believe anyone is talking about the increase in the use of lightweight, deep (er) dish wheels. This year especially, there has been an increase in 88mm deep carbon tubulars.

    As manufacturers clamber over each other to sell stuff – they are looking to increase their chances of exposure – and deep dish wheels provide the perfect platform for shiny stickers (not to mention technology).

    This coupled with the winds in the North of France would have made riding in the peleton very tricky. It does not matter how experienced you are, manhandling deep dish wind catchers aint easy.

    Want to reduce the pile ups – look at restricting wheel depth – or introduce a drag co-efficient rating for wheels on windy stages. This could become very technical I know, but watch the manufacturers get serious about real tech then!!

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