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Post Race Analysis

How can Tour de France organisers make the race more interesting?

Smaller teams, breakaway points and other ways to entice riders to break the monotony of a sprint stage

No sooner has the 2017 Tour de France been wrapped up, with Chris Froome in the yellow jersey on the Paris podium, attention turns to next year’s race.

Can Froome win for a record-equaling fifth time? What will the route be like? Which of this year’s break-out stars should we be excited to watch in 12 months time?

But, as we look back on the 2017 edition, there is one more pertinent question to come out of this year’s race – how can next year’s edition be more interesting?

How can organisers improve next year’s Tour de France? (Pic: Alex Broadway/ASO/SWpix.com)

In a race of two halves, the latter was packed with action, even if Froome’s victory rarely looked in doubt despite the slim margin, but not before we had to tolerate the tedium of the first 11 stages (stage nine aside).

Having opened with a time trial, six of the next ten stages ended in a bunch sprint. That’s not a problem in itself – sprint or transition stages are certainly nothing new at the Tour – but there was just no action to speak of. The breakaways were small, the bunch gave them zero leeway and the decision to broadcast every minute of this year’s race live on TV was looking like a bad one, unless you wanted something to nod off to of an early afternoon.

But what can be done in future to tempt riders into the breakaway and make the transition stages – an important part of the Tour as the race travels the length and breadth of France – more interesting?

UCI points for breakaway riders

The issue really came to a head on stages ten and 11, when – after a mountain stage packed with thrills and spills to Chambery on stage nine – racing resumed after the first rest day with two tedious, formulaic days of racing.

Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) got in the break on the first of those two stages – a largely flat, 178km run from Perigueux to Bergerac – and his frustration was palpable post-stage.

Yoann Offredo cut a frustrated figure after another fruitless break on stage ten of the Tour de France (Pic: Sirotti)

He was filmed on the team bus, sarcastically applauding QuickStep Floors’ rivals for helping them tee up another Marcel Kittel sprint win, by chasing his and Elie Gesbert’s breakaway down.

And in an interview with the Cycling Podcast his frustration post-stage was still evident – the stage was boring for spectators, he said in no uncertain terms – and the Frenchman called for changes to entice riders into the breakaway.

One of his more pertinent suggestions was to offer UCI points for teams in the breakaway – and that makes a lot of sense. On a 200km stage seemingly made for the sprinters, it would ensure there’s still the opportunity for teams and individual riders (particularly those chasing a new contract) to be rewarded for their efforts in going up the road.

Of course, that could also increase the incentive of the teams behind to close any move down, but it would encourage attacking riding – escaping at any point in the stage could add to your points tally, and that will all add up over the course of the season.

Offredo and Elie Gesbert spent a day in the breakaway, with no other teams willing to try to join them, instead only succeeding in setting up another Marcel Kittel win (Pic: Alex Broadway/ASO/SWpix.com)

And teams with riders up the road will have more incentive to disrupt the chase, which can only add to the unpredictability – plus, the more attacks there are, the more chance there is of one sticking.

Naturally, you then risk teams loading the breakaway so the rule would need some restrictions – how about one point for every one kilometre spent in a breakaway of less than ten riders? Up the road with 13 others? Best get attacking again then, we’ll have no free-loaders round here…

Primes

Along the same lines, putting up greater rewards for getting in the breakaway will entice more riders up the road. Primes, common in criterium races, could be one answer. How about, in a nod to the club run or local chaingang, town sign sprints with palpable rewards?

Being a host town or village for the Tour de France is a big deal, and if one or two along the route are nominated as primes, with prize money on offer, then there will be more action along the route, besides the intermediate sprint, which is often stifled by the main sprinters.

A block of cheese for a day in the breakaway? Why not? (Pic: Sirotti)

It would be especially important for local riders to get in the breakaway and win on their home roads, and the added addition of a sprint will bring out more fans and tourists.

And why stop with prize money? If the village you’re passing through has a local tradition, offer it is as a prize – one of the under-rated joys of pro cycling is a podium ceremony that includes a confused-looking cyclist trying to work out what he’s going to do with the giant block of cheese he’s just won.

Of course, you could argue there are already primes in place – the riders in the breakaway can compete for the points and prize money on offer on the climbs and intermediate sprints – but offering an additional incentive would be no bad thing.

Breakaway jersey

One additional option could be to offer a separate classification and jersey aimed at the breakaway. The Tour of Britain, for example, has a points jersey aimed at the most consistent finisher, similar to the Tour’s green jersey, and a separate ‘sprints’ jersey, where points are awarded at three intermediate sprints and bonus seconds deducted from the rider’s overall time.

The Tour of Britain has a separate classification and jersey, based purely on intermediate sprints (Pic: Sweetspot)

It’s another idea that needs careful consideration, not least because of the fact an intermediate sprint already exists in the Tour, but, by effectively offering an additional points-based classification likely to be won by a breakaway rider, there will be a whole new incentive for riders to escape from the peloton.

On top of that, it will give those smaller teams who help animate the race the chance to get on the podium – and stay there as the race progress – while also enlivening the action.

Smaller teams

Alongside encouraging more riders to join the breakaway, hampering the chase is another way to open up the racing a little more. And smaller team sizes is a sure-fire way to do just that.

You only have to watch the Tour of Britain, with its six-man teams, to see the difficulties a small sprint team can have controlling the peloton.

The peloton would be harder to control with smaller teams (Pic: Alex Broadway/ASO/SWpix.com)

The Rio 2016 Olympic Road Race also prompted more calls for shorter teams, after a thrilling race out in Brazil last year.

At this year’s Tour, however, with nine riders per team, it was easy for both the sprint and GC teams to burn out a couple of riders on the front during the chase – think Luke Rowe for Team Sky or Julien Vermote for QuickStep Floors – and leave plenty in reserve for the business end of a stage.

The Rio 2016 road race featured smaller teams and plenty of action (Pic: Sirotti)

Now, this one is already in action – Grand Tour teams will be reduced to eight riders in 2018. We’ll see what effect that has next year. If it’s business as useful, the UCI could look to reduce that to seven riders. All of a sudden you need to be more measured in your effort. There are less riders to control the peloton, and more chance for teams to try and wreak havoc on the front.

And it wouldn’t be just the sprint teams under pressure either – if the team defending the yellow jersey is forced to hit the front and drive a fast pace early on, there will be less team-mates around to protect the race leader from attacks later in the stage.

Shorter stages

One problem with the transition stages of this year’s Tour de France was not just the pan-flat terrain and formulaic racing, but the length of them, too.

As a result, not only was the racing that unfolded all too predictable and inevitable, it just took a damn long time to happen.

Could shorter, more varied stages open up opportunities for the breakaway? (Pic: Alex Broadway/ASO/SWPix.com)

One of the most action-packed stages in the race was the 101km stage 13, packed with three category-one climbs, from Saint-Girons to Foix.

Sure, a shorter flat stage would mean just a smaller version of what happens currently on long stages – break goes out, peloton chases, break gets caught, Marcel Kittel wins – but chuck in a couple of little ramps and all of a sudden you have a race on your hands.

Which brings us nicely to our last point…

A more varied route

In recent years, the Tour de France route has typified the mantra that you can’t win the race in the first week, but you can certainly lose it.

Crosswinds, cobbles, and Classics-like stages have all been the order of the day prior to this year’s race.

The Tour de France should reward the best all-round riders, and that also means mixing it up on punchy, uphill finishes and tough terrain, as well as staying safe on flat sprint stages.

The 2014 and 2015 Tours de France featured cobbled stages in the first week (Pic: Sirotti)

In the latter half of this year’s race, the varied parcours added an extra layer of excitement to the racing. For example, stage 14 finished with a nasty kick into Rodez and saw the yellow jersey change hands, while momentum swung massively in the battle for the green jersey when stage 16 kicked off with a climb, and Team Sunweb set a phenomenal pace to split the peloton and tee-up Michael Matthews for victory at the expense of Marcel Kittel.

Crosswinds later in the stage caused further splits too, and while you are always at the mercy of the weather, organisers can certainly help by picking routes where crosswinds will be more pertinent. Look at stages into Montpellier in 2013 and 2016, or the stage finish on Zeeland in 2015 for examples.

Of course, we don’t want the GC race to be over in the first week – that’s exactly what Tour organisers were looking to avoid this year in manufacturing the course to provide a closer battle for the yellow jersey – but there are steps that can be taken to provide a true test to sprinters, breakaway riders and the GC men.

The stages don’t have to be so tough that the pure sprinters will miss out – we love a bunch gallop as much as everyone – we just want the sprint teams put under a bit more pressure on the run-in. ASO has to take some responsibility in making that happen.

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