Change happens slowly in professional cycling - whether it be bike regulations (6.8kg minimum weights??), spectator-friendly technology (live rider telemetry??), or anything else that may involve a change to the status quo. The UCI seems very loathe to make any changes unless huge pressure is applied.
With that in mind, I was very surprised when I read some previews for two races - the just-raced Classica San Sebastion one-dayer, and the currently racing Tour of Poland stage race - and discovered some minor tweaks had been made.
The key change made is an experimental reduction in team size - only six riders per team, down from the usual eight (Grand Tours have teams of nine riders). This is something I really like and have advocated before, as it makes it harder for one team to control the race.
In the Tour of Poland, they are also doing some funky things with time bonuses, and creating an "attractivity jersey" for the leader of a combined classification that takes into accounts intermediate sprints and mountains points. All a bit confusing and arbitrary - I just don't quite get what they are trying to do...
So with all that in mind, I started wondering - if I got the chance to make up a new model for stage races, what would I do......??
Firstly, let's start with the premise that if you are going to make some changes, let's do it properly. Don't just fritter around the edges, but get stuck in and shake the system up a bit.
1. Teams of eight riders - six on-the-road, and two substitutes.
Each team nominates a team of eight riders at the start of the race. However, only six riders can race at any one time. Substitutes can only be made between stages.
All riders are eligible for any points-based competitions (eg. sprint jersey or mountains jersey). So sprinters can sit out mountain stages, and mountain climbers can be subbed out for an extra lead-out train specialist on the flat sprint stages.
The team competition is still calculated by the best 3 riders on each stage, and is unaffected.
I think this would make the riding 'harder and faster', but without increasing the load on individual riders. Mountain goats could save their legs with extra recovery days, and the sprinters could go flat out and not have to save themselves to survive the tough days.
2. Designated team leaders, and only they can win overall.
Before the race begins, the team must nominate who is racing for the overall win. They may nominate any two riders for this (a third may be nominated if they are also qualify for the 'young riders competition').
The "designated team leaders" MUST start every stage, and may not be substituted at any time. They should also be easily visually-identified - either by having a uniquely coloured number, or maybe even a jersey-feature.
The overall classification will only feature these designated team leaders, and only they are eligible to win the race overall.
I believe this recognises the 'team' nature of cycling. In most other team sports, competitors fill specific positions that have a definitive role to play. This would give cycling the same structure.
Another benefit would be for the spectator, especially those that are relatively new to the sport. It would be much clearer who the team leaders are, and to understand why different strategies are employed.
3. Anyone can win a stage, but time bonuses are distributed to the team leaders.
The stage winner is still the first rider to cross the line each day, that doesn't change. However, if a time bonus is applicable to the stage winner, then that time bonus is automatically equally split between that team's "designated team leaders".
As an example, if the Team Wheelsucker sprinter wins a stage and gets 12 bonus seconds, then the two "designated team leaders" for Team Wheelsucker are automatically given 6 seconds each (or 4 seconds each if their are three team leaders).
This is another change that emphasises the team aspect of the sport. It would also make for some interesting strategic choices with the substitutions for different stages...!!
Would this make 'better' racing?
I have no idea. Racing is pretty exciting now, this would simply make 'different' racing.
What I really like about this model is the shift to a more well-recognised team structure. You have your team leaders known and recognised, and riders can be subbed in and out as it suits the team best.
I also suspect this would lead to a spreading of the talent pool. Even if a team loads itself up with potential winners, it must nominate who its leaders are at the start, and only they can potentially win. So riders looking for glory will need to go to another team in order to have a chance to fulfil their ambitions. Perhaps a disincentive to joining a 'super-team'??
What I think might be lossed is the 'glorious uncertainty' of racing, when an unknown rider can snatch an overall victory by surprise. That said, this happens less often these days as riding becomes much more controlled and less happens by surprise.
I am still, even some weeks later, suffering from post Tour de France fatigue. So maybe what seems like a good idea right now may not seem like such a good idea later when I'm better rested! However I think it would make for some interesting, different racing and strategy going forward into the future...
Please note though - if the UCI decide to make these changes, I thought of it first!! ;-)