We consider whether a move to eight-man teams instead of nine would have made the 2016 Tour de France a closer contest after Chris Froome's dominant display
Although a subplot to Froome’s dominance, and a feat many teams have achieved before (and seven others did this year), that Sky finished the race with their full compliment of riders is an achievement in itself.
At the same time, that Froome’s performances have been relatively matched by his domestiques has suffocated the battle for the maillot jaune. So the intervention by Tour director Christian Prudhomme, who yesterday told French newspaper L’Équipe that the Tour “more than ever needs a rider less per team”, at first glance has some traction.
“[Sky] are overpowered and lockdown the race in the mountains,” added Prudhomme. But he knows the problem he’s facing: as he admitted when talking about the same issue four years ago, “most of the big teams do not want to hear about this [reducing squad size].”
And why would they? Quintana may have disappointed this July, but him finishing on the podium is great for his team’s sponsors.
Ag2r La Mondiale will be thrilled to be the best French team in the race by some distance, while Trek-Segafredo will be wishing that Bauke Mollema hadn’t have faded so badly on Friday and Saturday when their first podium position since the short-lived days of Leopard-Trek in 2011 was on the cards.
Froome may have been a couple of percent better than his rivals this summer (his seven-minute margin ahead of Roman Kreuziger in 10th after nearly 86-and-a-half hours of racing is less than what Vincenzo Nibali beat runner-up Jean-Christophe Péraud by in 2014), but in this modern era of the Tour, Sky’s rivals know what they’re getting themselves into.
How many sports directors will have told their GC contenders to simply “stay with Froome as long as possible” during the past three weeks?
So good has Froome been that it’s difficult to say that having eight-man teams this year will have changed the race winner.
Yes, Sky’s mountain domestiques such as Wout Poels and Sergio Henao may have ridden 15 or 20 watts slower on climbs because of their increased workload, but Froome’s been the best rider and also the most consistent.
If Bardet, Quintana et al struggled to hit the Briton with body blows accompanied by eight riders, the chances of them doing so with seven seem remote. Think back to Astana’s pace-setting for Fabio Aru on the slopes of Finhaut-Emosson, which was then followed by a complete non-attack by the Italian, as an example.
Asked in his winner’s press conference on Saturday night about what could be done to make the racing more exciting, Froome (in a predictable, PR-trained answer) said: “There’s talk about teams being reduced, that might be something for the future, but that’s a question for the UCI.”
If cycling wants the Tour to be full of intrigue, suspense, greater tactical manoeuvres and (seemingly the key thing for the Sky-hating internet users) unpredictable every year, the only way of doing so would be to have six-man teams.
Six leaders in eight days at the 2014 Tour of Britain suggests as much. As Michal Kwiatkowski and Alex Dowsett both found, either having their team-mates or themselves make one bold, GC-bid effort themselves can affect them greatly the following day.
“The key to the Tour of Britain in my opinion remains the six-man team format,” said Tour of Britain race director Mick Bennett. “When you have got a really tough course – and the 2014 route was certainly that – it’s difficult for six-man teams to control, especially if riders are perhaps tired…and/or the big teams aren’t willing to work with each other.
He added: “The net result was full-on racing every day, with the smaller teams able to shine early in the stage, and then a mad scrap between the big boys at the end. It made for a great spectacle.”
Just don’t expect such a drastic step for the Tour. Not merely because ASO cannot implement such a change without a UCI rule tweak.
“I can recall the outcry that followed a proposal to bring teams down from nine to eight,” said Prudhomme in a 2012 interview with La Depeche in 2012, “so do not even think about six.”
This year’s edition of the former, in which Geraint Thomas hurtled down onto the Promenade des Anglais in a desperate, but successful bid to fight off Contador’s last gasp attempt for victory, had a fascinating second half.
The 2014 and 2015 editions of the Dauphiné both saw leadership changes on the final day, too.
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that as recently as 2011, both races fell flat, in large part due to mid-distance time trials that ultimately decided the GC.
Course design is a key factor in how races play out – ASO’s decision to backload the 2016 Tour with four challenging mountain stages required too much going in their favour to create late drama (a number of riders operating at nigh-on identical form and teams willing to risk podium finishes for a win are the most obvious factors).
So yes, while eight-man teams could enliven the Tour de France, as an individual factor, it’s unlikely to benefit the race significantly.