One of the more arresting of the off-season stories was a suggestion a couple of weeks ago from Eusebio Unzué, the manager of the Movistar team, that cycling should allow substitutions in Grand Tours, “as happens in any other sport”. He wanted teams to be able to replace injured riders, at least during the first week, and to allow tired riders to miss a couple of stages and rejoin the race afterwards.
This idea probably didn’t get the attention it deserved. If nothing else the idea that it might be used for any purpose other than gaming the system showed a charming faith in the honesty of a sport that can’t even manage to pass a water bottle out of a car window without turning it into an episode of The Moral Maze.
I am, for instance, pretty sure that if this was the rule there’d be a lot of domestiques crashing in the last kilometre of the last stage of the first week. I can imagine them all landing very gently on the softest bit of verge they could find, and screaming in agony.
It would be unfortunate, because we would at a stroke have lost one of the single best sticks we have for hitting football with; we’d have a diving-to-the-floor-and-faking-serious-injury problem that was even bigger than theirs.
In cycling, most rule changes — disc brakes, team sizes in Grand Tours — get treated like a meteorite strike when they’re introduced, but are really rather trivial. So perhaps, substitutions aside, there are things we could steal from other sports.
The offside rule, for example. We could decide to penalise any team that gets more than one rider between the leader of the GC and the leader of the stage.
Or something like that — if there’s one thing that’s clear from the offside rules of other sports it’s that clarity isn’t important or even desirable. All that really matters is that Team Sky can add to their reputation for pedantic dullness by all slamming their brakes on simultaneously and creating an offside trap.
Points for panache
Or we could look to ski-jumping, and base the results on not only straightforward performance, but have marks for style. To be honest, that’s pretty much what happens anyway — how often have you heard a successful rider being written off by fans because he doesn’t ride with ‘panache’?
All we’ll do is formalise the system with a jury of elderly French cycling fans, who can be relied upon to award time bonuses for doomed solo attacks into strong headwinds. It would neatly neutralise the advantage Sky might get from the offside rule, and Julian Alaphilippe would win the Tour from now until he’s too old to get his leg over a top tube.
How about nicking weight categories from boxing? It would give 85kg rouleurs something to fight for on mountain stages, and 50kg quiche-eaters something to worry about on sprint days, so that no one would ever get a day off.
We could even cross-pollinate from one cycling discipline to another. Omnium time trialling. Madison BMX. The 12-hour individual pursuit.
Every single one of these ideas is ludicrous. Even I’m not sick enough to fancy a 12-hour pursuit. But they’re still better than substitutions, an idea that goes against the qualities of endurance, consistency and luck that makes winning a Grand Tour what it is.
Does anyone really want to hear next July that Movistar are swapping their team time triallists for climbers halfway through the first week of next year’s Tour de France? Or that Chris Froome has got a doctor’s note to excuse him from the stage over the Paris-Roubaix cobbles?
I really, really doubt it.