Analysis: after the Olympics, is it time for smaller teams in road racing?

After one of the best races in years, what can pro cycling from the Olympic Games men's road race?

The major criticism of the Tour de France this year was that the race quickly became too predictable. Sky’s stranglehold on the race, in particular in the final week, extinguished any flames of aggression or tactical intrigue because they could ride so strongly and so consistently. The competition for the yellow jersey was effectively sewn up before the second rest day.

Two weeks later and the cycling world enjoyed one of the most thrilling and unpredictable races in recent years, with Greg Van Avermaet emerging from one of the hardest one-day courses in memory to win Olympic gold.

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It was an excellent advert for road cycling at the world’s biggest sporting event, and it would be easy to put it down to the smaller teams. Sky had nine riders at the Tour – eight to support Froome – whereas the biggest teams in the Olympic road race had just five. Indeed the average team size was just 2.29 riders (and before you make that joke, that didn’t mean two riders plus Domenico Pozzovivo for the Italian squad).

Some teams even had dead weight on the line. Max Levy was a sneaky inclusion for Germany in order to qualify him for the sprint events on the track, using the same trick that French track sprinter Mikael Borgain pulled in 2012 alongside Levy’s countryman Robert Forstemann (oh he of ginormous thighs) when he entered the mountain bike competition in London.

Another inclusion this year was Zac Williams, the 20 year-old Kiwi kilo specialist who completed 40 times his preferred distance before getting in a car and giving up.

The biggest result of such small teams is that the race immediately became difficult to control. By the time teams had used up one or two riders to pull or make it in the breakaway, it didn’t leave many left. Other riders could look around and realise that very quickly, teams would have no riders left or would be already represented in moves, opening up plenty of opportunities for attacks.

“That’s why I was trying to get away, because I knew there weren’t the numbers to control it,” said New Zealand’s George Bennett. “There was Castroveijo, from Spain, that was riding when there were three Spanish riders left, and he was their last guy he was running out of steam pretty quickly, and I knew there was an Italian up the road, a British guy up the road, so who was left [to chase]?”

With it being such a hard course – riders called the race the hardest one-day race in cycling – comprising cobbles, technical downhills and sapping climbs, teams found it even tougher to control.

Steve Cummings leading the men's Olympic road race. Photo: Graham Watson

Steve Cummings leading the men’s Olympic road race. Photo: Graham Watson“

“There’s no race in the WorldTour that has three climbs of a 9km climb in the last 50km, so we were always gonna have our work cut out,” said Australia’s Simon Clarke. “It wasn’t extremely hot but the heat was definitely a factor, it made it even tougher. You’re trying to keep your core body temperature down as well as trying to take in the workload of a course like that, so it was super tough.”

In such conditions the race saw climbers get dropped on the climbs while some classics riders stayed up front. The best descender in the field – Vincenzo Nibali – crashed on the final descent and the best climber in the field, the man who won the Tour de France, couldn’t bridge a gap to the lead group on the final climb.

Add in vastly different experience levels – where else does a 22 year-old amateur rider from Kosovo line up against the Tour de France champion? – and varied form off the back of the Tour, subtract race radios and multiply by the exotic and unusual conditions, and the result was the equation for the best one day race all year.

Ultimately, of course, nobody in the field was really racing for minor placings. Coming tenth and scooping up a haul of WorldTour points was not an option: it was a medal or bust.

Those calls for smaller teams in pro cycling will probably get louder off the back of the Olympic road race. There are naturally plenty of structural hurdles in pro cycling with race routes, team selection, rider abilities and safety considerations. However cycling can learn a lot from its Rio experiment.