The Three Second Rule

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

An aide memoire about the new UCI rule that’s been applied for a year now to some bunch sprints where a gap of at least three seconds needs to exist in order for a new time gap to exist. It’s still under trial this year and more complicated than mere gap of three seconds.

The tradition: for years the convention has been that riders finishing in a group have been given the same time as first rider of the group. More precisely the time is taken on the front plane of the front wheel (UCI rule 1.2.100). A gap of one second has to occur between the back of one rider’s back wheel and the front of another rider’s front wheel for a second group to be defined (1.2.107).

With a bunch sprint crossing the line at 60km/h one second equates to 17 metres, a sizeable gap. Fear of being caught out on the wrong side of a gap has seen teams with ambitions for the overall classification in a stage race running a train into the final kilometre in order to be as far ahead in the bunch as possible in case of a split. This in turn got in the way of the sprint teams and made bunch sprints even more hectic.

The solution: now a three second gap has to open up to count, again between the back of one rider’s back wheel and the front of another rider’s front wheel. At 60km/h this equates to a distance of 50 metres. If there’s a gap of 2.99 seconds then all the riders are placed together on the same time. Note this is measured thanks to a photofinish camera rather than the whim of a commissaire. The idea here is to let riders relax a bit in the final metres of a finish knowing that if a gap opens up it should not cost them time on GC.

This was first tested in the 2017 season at the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France, it’s now permitted in all stage races.  However this new rule only applies to the “main peloton”. If a solo breakaway just manages to stay clear by two seconds at the finish line then the time gap between the winner and the chasing peloton is two seconds. It’s only if splits occur within the peloton that the gaps are measured.

Safety in numbers
Similarly if the peloton itself splits into several groups during the run in then the rule applies to the largest group only, deemed the “main peloton”. So imagine a Tour de France bunch sprint with 176 riders, if the field splits in crosswinds and 40 come in to contest the finish and then there’s a 100 rider group coming in behind then among the 40 riders any one second gap is enough to count as a split and a new time be given. However among the main group of 100 a 2.99 second gap can exist and they will all be credited with the same time. Similarly should 87 riders come in one group and 89 in the other then in theory it only applies to the larger group. This is bound to lead to some confusion, imagine a stage held in crosswinds where riders will be wondering if they are “safe” in what appears to be the largest group only for two groups behind to merge meaning they have to be diligent about a one second gap in the finish. Put another way riders should only count on the three second rule applying if they’re in an obvious big bunch sprint.

Also this rule only applies when it is applied. By which the race roadbook or rules have to stipulate in advance the stages, if any, which are expected sprint stages where this three second protocol applies. This is potentially confusing for outsiders as often the race rules can be hard to find, sometimes tucked away on a corner of a race website, sometimes only issued to participants and accredited media.

The three second rule doesn’t apply automatically to bunch sprints, it has to be mentioned in advance in the rulebook so don’t automatically assume it applies but half the point of this blog post is a reminder that it often applies to bunch sprints this year in stage races. So if you see a big gap between riders at the finish they might all be on the same time once the commissaires have finished with the results. It also applies to the “main peloton” so just because you see a large group coming it does not automatically apply.

The new rule is an artifice but so is the convention of giving everyone the same time if they stay within one second of each other. It’s still under review, a balance between rider safety and the visual simplicity of working out what constitutes a peloton and what doesn’t.

  • Note: All this is from the UCI PDF available online and it’s only in reading it and like many blog posts the act of writing it up helps to learn the rule
Richard S June 6, 2018 at 4:31 pm

I think the rule is a bad idea. If you want to be paranoid and insist on ‘running a train’ in every sprint to keep your GC man at the front in case of a split then you should run the risk of getting involved in the pushing, shoving and high speed crashing that characterises bunch sprints. Those prepared to be chilled out, not wear out there team in stages that don’t matter and risk losing a second here and there in splits should be rewarded by not being involved in said crashes.

Morten Reippuert June 6, 2018 at 5:16 pm

agree, drop 1sec gap, 3km, 1km rules as well.

GC riders will accept loosing time is part of buisness or crash misarably risking their source of income.

Lose Police June 7, 2018 at 3:03 pm


AP June 6, 2018 at 5:43 pm

It’s not really about helping the GC guys, it’s about helping the sprinters I think.

Anonymous June 6, 2018 at 9:42 pm

The rule is an attempt to solve this problem. It is trying to eliminate the paranoia of GC teams running a train at the front in case of a split. The idea is they have 3 seconds to play with rather than 1 second so they can chill out more and risk losing a second here and there. Because one second won’t count. The peloton would really have to fall asleep for there to be three seconds between two riders in the vast majority of bunch sprints.

Netserk June 6, 2018 at 5:29 pm

I’ve for long time wondered – given how a gap is defined – what happens if a rider stops on the finish line with the wheels on each side of it. The rider himself has crossed the line, and his time is taken – but will everyone after him get the same time as well, no matter how long after they cross the line?

The Inner Ring June 6, 2018 at 5:34 pm

You’d get fined… you can’t stop on the line as it gets in the way of others. As for the timing they’d probably work something out, eg base it off the front wheel.

BenW June 8, 2018 at 1:34 pm

On a vaguely related note re: getting in the way, what’s the distance the photographers are at after a sprint? Is it mandated? I remember Lizzie Armitstead in the Women’s Tour hitting a photographer but it always surprisises me just how close and how much of a bottleneck it looks to be after a stage, considering the speed at which the riders are all coming in.

Dave June 11, 2018 at 8:43 pm

Yes, it’s covered by the UCI Regulations.

” 2.2.086
The space for photographers behind the finish line shall not extend for more than 40% of the width of the road. The photographers must be positioned at a distance from the line of at least 15 meters and beyond. This distance will be fixed by the organiser with the president of the commissaires panel and a representative of the photographers, on the basis of the characteristics of the event.”

All the riders in international pro races know this well, and tolerate it as a necessary evil because they know they can’t get paid if they can’t get their photo in the papers.

It works over 99% of the time, largely because most pro riders have the bike handling skills to celebrate a win without losing control of their bike. Lower level racing typically has additional rules banning riders from taking both hands off the bars at any time, on pain of disqualification.

Dave June 11, 2018 at 8:50 pm

Eliminate or relegate the rider who falsified the finish, then work out the timing and splits for everyone else in the race as if he wasn’t even there.

‘Cheating, attempted cheating, collusion…’ would be the rule you would use.

RonDe June 6, 2018 at 6:11 pm

In an age of multiple camera angles, bikes with GPS sensor technology and photo finish cameras which can differentiate times to one ten thousandth of a second (as when Kittel beat EBH by millimeters in last year’s Tour) why can’t we update the rules so that every rider gets an exact timing? I can’t believe that its technologically impossible anymore. For me the worst convention of all is that everyone is supposed to hold back so that “the sprinters” can have a race. Newsflash: everybody is in a race!

Barbarossa June 6, 2018 at 10:00 pm

No one’s holding back to “let the sprinters have a race”, they’re holding back because the risk/reward of crash/injury vs. stage win/time gain isn’t worth it. Dedicated sprint trains are going to boss it over GC-oriented teams in sprint run-ups anyway – is a huge increased risk of crashes as everyone fights everyone for position on every finish really worth it? Many other sports have rules that favor injury prevention even at a (slight) cost to competition.

JT June 6, 2018 at 10:00 pm

I’m not sure Quickstep, Mitchelton-scott, bora, UAE, Katusha or any other team bringing a GC and a sprinter to a race would agree. Whilst sky, movistar and Astana would have sprint trains for their GC leaders, the other teams would have to choose between GC or sprinting which would be a shame either way.

Larry T June 7, 2018 at 11:51 am

+1 Damn. Again. 🙂 As RonDe points out, last time I checked it was a RACE. That’s why there is a finish line. Sprinters have duked it out, with or without various lead-out men, probably since wheels were made of wood, so why do we now need all these special rules regarding sprinting and falling off in the last few kilometers?

EightyEight June 9, 2018 at 10:55 pm

Sorry, I know this is an old post but; I don’t think sprinters have always had leadout men. If I remember correctly it was something that the Cipollini era brought in.

Tim June 6, 2018 at 7:25 pm

The easy solution to the “am I in the main group or not” issue is just to have it defined by groups larger than a certain number. e.g. for all groups larger than 50, the 3 second rule is in effect otherwise its a 1 second rule

Patrick June 6, 2018 at 9:25 pm

what is the distinction between a finish line gap and a split in the bunch? a small gap opens just before the line vs kms out – how close to the line do they define the peloton?

it seems odd that the largest group is the one it applies to rather than any large group sprinting for the win when it is intended to simplify the sprint finish – if your 87 rider front group is sprinting for the win its still going to be chaotic whereas the 89 rider 2nd group will be relatively steady

Barbarossa June 6, 2018 at 9:49 pm

It’s a good idea even if the execution, in typical UCI style, leaves something to be desired.

Personally I’d be fine doing away with mass bunch sprinting altogether – I find nailed-on sprint stages far more boring than ITT, with the 5-10 minute payoff at the end not remotely worth hours of drudgery, plus it leads to nonsense like Cipollini being the all-time leader in Giro stage wins (which tbf, no one knows better than Cipollini) – but as that’s never going to happen, why not try to reduce injury by keeping GC guys/teams a bit away from the sharp end? All of bike racing, indeed all of sport, is “artifice”, or at least artificial, so I’m fine making reasonable concessions to safety. And as someone noted above, the rule is about making sprints safer, not about helping GC guys avoid minimal time loss even if that is a possible side effect.

noel June 6, 2018 at 10:23 pm

oh I love a sprint finish…. first you have all the politics and poker of ‘who’s going to chase the break back’, (hopefully Kelly is commentating and brings out his ‘do the calculation line…’ .Then you have the wind up from about 10k out, and trying to spot who is where they need to be and who isn’t, and then you fret that the teams you like are hitting the front too early/not organised/boxed in etc, and then it’s 3 minutes of mayhem, usually through several inappropriate roundabouts, taking corners at speeds I’d cr*p myself going at in a straight line, elbows out competing for ‘the’ wheel, maybe someone’s gone early, who’s going to do the necessary to take them back in…and when it seems like they’ve all been sprinting for ages, a bunch of them take off…
it gets my heart going anyway…

RonDe June 7, 2018 at 12:46 am

Its been said before that on designated “sprint” stages they could just take the GC times at 3kms to go. “Problem” solved.

Anonymous June 7, 2018 at 2:24 am

No dull, it only pushes the problem to a line 3km before that. And it contradicts what you said before, everybody should get the time on the finish line. Are you two persons or can’t you remember what you said 2 minutes ago, main point is saying the opposite of what others said, I guess

RonDe June 7, 2018 at 11:15 am

I’m a person who can hold more than one idea in her head at once. Which, I believe, is allowed.

Anonymous June 7, 2018 at 4:06 am

INRNG, any chance of a discussion regarding the reported “staggered start” proposed for the Luchon stage 17 this July?
Is this confirmed, how will it work and what are they aiming for?

The Inner Ring June 7, 2018 at 9:14 am

It’s confirmed, it’s part of the rulebook. It won’t change much, many a kermesse or village race starts with the best riders and locals being called to the front, here the main riders need only soft pedal for a few seconds to have their team mates around them. It’s a nice bit of drama though, gets people talking about this short stage and puts an even greater emphasis on its explosive nature.

J Evans June 7, 2018 at 9:30 am

Mind you, if a team has a few riders in the top 20, they could go flat out from the start in order to prevent others’ team mates from catching up.
You could have, say, the Movistar triumvirate of NQ, ML and AV in the top 20, or a Sky trio of CF, GT, WP (or A Nother).
This is more likely to end up benefiting the stronger teams – although the most likely eventuality is probably the soft pedal as you say.

Dave June 11, 2018 at 8:54 pm

The spread of the field will be less than 70 metres, so certainly not enough for a team with multiple riders in the front group to attack before all the domestiques of every other GC team charge them down from behind.

The way some people have been carrying on about it, you would think they are going to be spread out by some minutes!

Dave June 11, 2018 at 9:22 pm

More importantly, it’s a sign that some within the sport are starting to realise that they are in the entertainment industry.

When a stage race has a city circuit stage, there should be a whole lap of the course ridden as a neutralised ‘formation lap’ at low speed. Have the leaders of the race classifications, the world champion and the host nation’s champion ride in front, then each team in GC order five metres apart. Allow them to close up once they are within 500m of the finish and then have a guest celebrity wave the green flag as they come to the line.

Road cycling needs to improve the live spectator experience, and city circuit races are the best place to start as they present the easiest wins. Make them more family friendly, and give the kids watching a chance to actually spot their heroes rather than just see a pack flash past.

Maybe what the sport of cycling needs is for some of its execs to go to a few big motor races? The Le Mans 24 Hours is the event that does it the best, the formation lap and start is one of the most dramatic moments of the motorsport year. Just because cycling is free doesn’t mean it has to be rubbish!

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