By Gregor Brown
Professional cycling's landscape keeps changing, and for 2018 the peloton literally takes on a newer dimension with smaller team sizes in races and, as a result, reduced WorldTour team rosters.
We take a look at these and other big changes that could affect the 2018 season and its principal actors.
Race rosters and team sizes
Racing could dramatically change in the Classics and stage races in 2018 with the super teams possibly losing their grip due to reduced rosters. A new UCI rule cuts the rosters for teams in Grand Tours from nine to eight riders, and from eight to seven in the smaller stage races and Classics, and from seven to six in some other races.
In the Tour de France, Sky could still keep the reins even with eight riders, but if early crashes eliminate two or even one of their riders then everything changes. As an example, Team Movistar's Tour in 2017 with Nairo Quintana took a hit in stage one when Alejandro Valverde's fell and abandoned. Or Fabio Aru's loss of helpers Jakob Fuglsang and Dario Cataldo. If such a thing happened in 2018, the teams would be nearly helpless.
Owain Doull pointed out in a recent interview that it will become tougher to even get selected for the biggest races.
"It'll be even harder [for the Classics] with Dylan Van Baarle joining the team and the roster cut down to seven. We have a stronger squad, and to be involved will be massive."
As a result, teams have trimmed the fat for 2018. The WorldTour has shrunk from 499 riders to around 476. BMC Racing counts five less than in 2017. Many teams are continuing with around two fewer riders. Only some expanded: Sky grew from 28 to 30 and teams Bahrain-Merida and Trek-Segafredo each added one.
UAE Team Emirates gets major update
UAE Team Emirates have dropped from 26 to 25 riders for 2018, but have considerably beefed up. The Arabian team will take fire at the Classics and Grand Tours with Alexander Kristoff (from Team Katusha-Alpecin), Fabio Aru (Astana) and Daniel Martin (Quick-Step Floors) coming on board.
United Arab Emirates only joined the peloton in 2017 but did so late in the previous off-season when a Chinese sponsor, that was ready to replace Lampre-Merida, fell through. Instead, the Italian team turned to the Gulf. They signed a few cyclists like Ben Swift and Darwin Atapuma, but had no time or space to bring on more.
A deal early on locked in Aru and another brought on board Martin. Aru will lead the Giro d'Italia team, trying to finally win his home Grand Tour after conquering the 2015 Vuelta a España. Martin, who will race the Tour, says the roles can be shared easily.
"If you want to be one of the best teams in the world you have to be present in every single race and there are many races, so there's space and opportunity," Martin said. "Even just to race two out of the three Grand Tours, it's already hard to do. There's a lot of room on the calendar for us."
Kristoff managed to win eight times and place second in the world championship behind Peter Sagan even if it was not one of his best seasons. The team will hope that he finds the same fitness that in previous years have carried him to wins in Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders.
Froome returns to the Giro d'Italia
Chris Froome's spring will take a seriously different turn in 2018 with his aim to win the Giro d'Italia. Instead of skipping the race and spending most of May in training camps, he will aim to complete the full set of Grand Tours.
After winning the Tour de France four times, Froome will return to the Giro for the first time since 2010. In 2018, though, he will be starting with the 2017 Tour and Vuelta trophies already on his shelf. If he wins the Giro, he would become one of only three, along with Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, to have three consecutive Grand Tour wins. He then plans to take aim at a fifth Tour de France title.
Froome's presence will give RCS Sport an "important global reach," said its cycling director, Mauro Vegni. He also hopes that it will spur the others to attack the star early on and create an even more entertaining race.
His Giro programme also changes the plans of Sky's other stars. One source suggested Geraint Thomas could race the Giro and Tour with Froome, and Wout Poels and Michal Kwiatkowski will lead the Vuelta team.
Tom Boonen and Alberto Contador's retirement
Certain riders, like Belgian Classics star Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) and Spanish Grand Tour specialist Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), define the generations in cycling. With their retirements, a new era begins for many who were previously overshadowed or who had not yet spread their wings.
Contador ended on top, retiring in the Vuelta a España after winning the final mountain stage up the widely-feared Angliru. It marked a career with wins in all three Grand Tours – seven in total.
His retirement changes Trek-Segafredo's plans, which will go into stage races with less-defined roles. It will build mostly with new signee Gianluca Brambilla for the Giro and Bauke Mollema for the Tour.
Boonen conquered the Tour of Flanders three times and Paris-Roubaix four times. After his retirement following the 2017 Paris-Roubaix – and with Fabian Cancellara already gone – Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) will carry even more of the weight in the Classics.
Mikel Landa leaves Sky for Movistar
The Spanish press already talk about who will replace their king of stage racing, Alberto Contador. The choice appears obvious with Mikel Landa leaving Team Sky to join home team, Movistar, for 2018.
Landa joined Sky from team Astana, where he placed third overall in the Giro d'Italia while riding for Fabio Aru's second place behind Alberto Contador. Over the last two years, he has helped Chris Froome take two Tour de France titles. He also had his chance to lead the Giro d'Italia team, but bad luck ruled him out of overall contention both times. In 2017, he still returned home to the Basque Country with the mountains jersey and a stage win.
In France in July, many followers called him the strongest and commented Sky should back him instead of Froome for the overall. Even after performing his duties, he was able to secure a fourth place overall.
Movistar signed Landa to lead their Grand Tour teams. It will slot him into its roster with Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. Our sources say Valverde will race the Giro and Landa will race the Tour with Quintana and the Vuelta with the world championships in mind.
The 2018 season will test Landa, who will earn much and carry a lot of expectation to make another step in his progression.
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