There’s a rule where if a rider falls or suffers a mechanical in the last three kilometres of a stage then they do not lose time on the overall classification. It’s worth explaining in its own right as it’s invoked many times a year and will come up in a stage race soon.
With Paris-Nice starting this weekend we could see the rule cited which would be appropriate it was this race that invented the rule, first because of a crash to a star rider and then formalised some years later thanks to Eddy Merckx.
Here’s the rule today as used by Tour de France organisers ASO and others but lifted from the UCI rulebook 2.6.027:
In the event that a rider or riders suffer a fall, puncture or mechanical incident in the last 3 kilometres and such an incident is duly recognised, the rider or riders involved are credited with the same finishing time of the rider or riders they were with at the time of the incident.
They are attributed this ranking only upon crossing the finish line. If after a fall, it is impossible for a rider to cross the finish line, he is given the ranking of last in the stage and credited with the time of the rider or riders he was with at the time of the incident. For exceptional cases, the decision taken by the stewards committee is final.
In simple terms if you have a problem in the last three kilometres then you’ll get the same time as group you were riding with when the misfortune struck. Note the rule does not apply to mountain stages.
Where does the rule come from?
We go back to the 1937 Paris-Nice race. The longest stage of the race is 250km from Nevers to St Etienne and soon after the start Roger Lapébie attacks. Away he goes and if Fernand Mithouard wins the stage, Lapébie takes the overall lead in the race, wearing the sky blue and gold leader’s jersey used at the time. But a couple of days later the race reaches Marseille and its famous Stade Vélodrome. At the entry to the stadium Lapébie loses control on a corner, crashes and loses time. But the organisers seem to take pity and the commissaires decide the velodrome is only there to decide the order of the stage finishes and stop the clock on the timing of riders when they entered the stadium rather than when the crossed the finish line. More details on the incident are hard to find but it seems Lapébie got some favourable treatment here. He went on to win the Tour de France in the same year.
Now we jump to 1972 and the year when Eddy Merckx, as was his style, was trying to win everything and as he fought to win the sprint into St Etienne he crashed and lost 47 seconds. But the commissaires again decided not to dock the time and credited him as arriving with the same time as the others he was sprinting with. From this moment onwards officials applied the rule, first to the final kilometre but now was extended to three kilometres in 2005.
Safety vs business
Looking back the 1972 race owners had every incentive to let Eddy Merckx lose time. The Cannibal was winning on every front and if races weren’t a procession, it was often a matter of how Merckx would win rather than whether he’d succeed. In fact in 1972 race boss Jean Leulliot was so frustrated by Merckx winning that, on the eve of the final stage, he privately offered Raymond Poulidor 10,000 Francs if he could win the race. Merckx meanwhile was so confident he started the final stage posing for photos with the motorboat offered as a prize to the winner, as if it was his already. But Poulidor, then 36, took off up up the Col d’Eze to set a new record of 20.04 and claimed the overall win too.
Why the rule?
If Lapébie got some help on the day the rule really appeared as a safety measure so that riders caught by misfortune in the final moments of a race did not stand to lose everything. Earlier in a race a puncture or crash is what the French call un incident de course or part of the race and there’s time to recover from a problem earlier in the race although a puncture with four kilometres to go would challenge the Australian world pursuit squad. But imagine if sprinters are fighting for the win but crash and leave riders caught behind the pile-up, this penalises riders through no fault of their own.
The rule distorts things but it does not give riders licence to sit up and freewheel to the line whilst the sprinters fight for the win. If a group passes the three kilometre point together it can still fragment on the way to the line and so you’ll often see the overall candidates for a race near the front even in the sprint, sitting in, say, 20th place so that if there’s a gap behind it doesn’t catch them out.
But the rule can be gamed. Should a rider puncture with four kilometres to go it has been known for them to plough on stoically only to suddenly make a big deal of the puncture once the three kilometre sign has been passed. Indeed the rule states the problem has to be “duly recognised” and TV images can help establish events. This is why stage results in big races can be issued on a provisional basis and it takes a while to establish what happened during the final three kilometres.
An artificial rule but one that helps rider safety. Lapébie was helped to the win in 1937 although press reports said he still deserved to win and one of his rivals Giuseppe Martano crashed out of the race completely within sight of Nice as he descended the Col de la Turbie. The “Lapébie rule” was applied to the time taken to enter the velodrome. But it was Merckx’s crash that saw it applied universally and for safety reasons when commercially the race might have benefitted from Merckx getting a chronological handicap.
Today riders and teams are well aware of the rule. It’s still an artificial distortion of events but works as a safety measure. It is not applied to uphill finishes and next week it won’t apply when the race climbs the Montagne de Lure.