Can the Tour de France become Competitive?
Chris Froome won the Yellow Jersey in the 2016 Tour de France yesterday as the winner of the General Classification with the lowest overall time in the 21 stages. How many cycling fans continued to watch each entire stage after Froome first put on the Yellow Jersey in week two? Beyond the usual incidents in every stage, breakaways, crashes, or contenders hampered by mechanical failure; the competition for the Yellow Jersey is essentially over. Do you record it and skip through to the Intermediate Sprints, climbs and finishes?
Froome and Team Sky were so dominant that his victory seemed inevitable when he gained the Yellow Jersey in the second week. The discipline and singular focus on winning reminds me of the US Postal Team ‘Blue Train’ of the 1990’s. Overall, there were only 5 teams with any realistic chance of winning the Yellow Jersey, Astana, BMC Racing, Movistar Team, Trek-Segafredo and Team Sky. but among these 5 teams, only Team Sky had the deep roster of cyclists and budget to dominate the Tour.
Team Sky’s budget for 2015 was reported as £24.442 million (€29.1m / $32.3m). For the 2015 Tour, Team Sky brought 47 bike frames, 20 spares and 107 wheels. Overall, there are a small number of Tour teams that are actually competitive year after year. Only BMC Racing, Tinkoff and Movistar come close to that much spending, with Trek-Segafredo close to that (especially with the Alberto Contador signing for next year). By comparison, AG2R La Mondiale’s budget for the 2015 was €14m ($15.4m).
And the spending gaps show up on television every year. Below is a table of the 2016 Tour de France teams. Most of them were competing for either a stage victory, or two, or another jersey; Green Jersey for points, Polka Dot Jersey for King of the Mountains or White Jersey for Best Young Rider.
2016 Tour de France Teams
World Tour Teams
AG2R La Mondiale
BMC Racing Team
Team Dimension Data
There are two major problems with the Tour; the ability of a small group of teams to pay for a competitive roster and equipment and the predictability of the general Tour route. Maybe I am showing my American sports league bias, but I would think that either the UCI, the ASO or some other organization would form a pro cycling league to foster a better level of competition, protect the riders and organize the Tour schedule to optimize the exposure of the teams and events.
The other problem with the Tour is the utter predictability of the routing. While the towns may change from year to year, the features and timing of the Tour do not change.
- First week: flat stages in Northern France with wind, rain and crashes with anxious riders; occasionally a top contender gets hurt.
- Second week: 3 Mountain stages (in either the Pyrenees or Alps, they alternate each year) with one Time Trial and a couple of mixed flat/hilly stages, typically hot, windy stages in Southern France
- Third week: 3 Mountain stages(Alps last week? Then Pyrenees this week or vice versa) with perhaps another Time Trial in the week and more mixed flat/hill stages
- For the Mountain Stages put the following names in a bag: Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux, Col d'Aubisque, Croix de Fer, Col du Tourmalet, and the Col du Galibier. Pick two or three each year to include and then add other climbs to fill out the Mountain Stages.
With this general outline every year, you can build a team dedicated to the Tour. The other tours are not as rigid. The 2016 Vuelta de Espana has two summit finishes in the first week. With millions of Euros, you sign a top GC contender with time trial skills, a top road captain, a number of decent climbers and smart domestiques. And make sure that a number of the riders could be a GC contender on a lesser team. Perhaps a cycling league with a spending cap would reduce the advantage that well-financed teams have over other teams every year. Froome may retire one day, but Team Sky’s checkbook will not. I do not want totally parity among the teams, but right now, barring a very bad timed mechanical problem or some unknown talented rider pulling off a spectacular upset on a mountain stage, it's going to be a rider from Team Sky, BMC or Movistar in yellow in the years to come.