Look at the image above and what do you see? André Greipel’s on his way to winning Stage 6 of the 2015 Giro d’Italia but look again through the gap of riders to the background and the pink jersey sat on the road. It’s Alberto Contador who has suffered a crash in the final hundred metres. What was he doing in the sprint you might ask and the answer is trying to stay out of trouble. The irony is that in a stage race those aiming for the overall classification have to be near the front even in the finish of a sprint stage to avoid losing time but this only raises the risks.
Is it time to rethink the 3km rule and reserve the finish of certain stages for the sprinters?
The 3km rule? Here’s the exact rule in question from the race rulebook:
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.
It’s applied to all the fast finishes and waived for summit finishes. The idea is to insure riders against time losses in the event of a crash in the final kilometres. If they crash or have a mechanical in the hustle and bustle of the finish then there’s no time to get up, get a replacement bike and get back. In order to deploy the rule the 3km to go point has much of the same set-up as the finish line with timing mats and a camera to record riders as they pass by.
We go back to the 1937 Paris-Nice race. Roger Lapébie is leading the overall classification as the race reaches Marseille and its famous Stade Vélodrome, then an actual cycling track. At the entrance to the stadium Lapébie loses control on a corner, crashes and loses time. But the officials seem to take pity and decide the velodrome is only there to decide the order of the stage finishes and they stop the clock for the timing of riders as they entered the stadium rather than when the crossed they finish line. More details hard to find but it set a precedent where an incident late in the race doesn’t have to incur a time penalty.
Now we jump to 1972 and Paris-Nice again. Eddy Merckx was trying to win everything and as he fought contested the bunch 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 that a crash or mechanical in the final kilometre would not incur a time penalty. The one kilometre rule was extended to three kilometres in 2005.
The Problem Today
The 3km rule is a good one but it doesn’t solve everything as by definition it only applies in the event of a mishap. The big problem is that the GC riders and their bodyguards get in the the way of the sprinters and their sprint trains just at the time of the race when everyone is fighting for position: there’s little room and no quarter given. This happens because the field can split in the run in and no GC contender wants to give up time to rivals because of something random like this. Take the last Giro d’Italia and Stage 5 where there was a clear one second time gap between the 13th and 14th rider over the line meaning those riders from 14th place down were given the same time as the 14th rider who crossed the line four seconds after the stage winner André Greipel.
Last year Chris Froome finished no lower than 28th during the opening week’s sprint stages, with the exception of Stage 6 where he was 110th after being caught in the same crash that saw Tony Martin crash out of the race. It creates a vicious circle were the GC teams fight to be near the front which makes the front more dangerous so the GC teams have to fight to be near the front.
There’s a chorus of voices saying something needs to change. It’s not deafening and it’s not the sport’s top problem but it’s worth reflecting on. Three recent voices on this: Team Sky’s sprinter Elia Viviani said so on TV during the Giro d’Italia; Bernard Eisel told The Cycling Podcast he was annoyed to see Team Sky crowding the sprint with 2.5km to go; fellow blogger Marc Madiot, cycling’s voice of conservatism, even agrees in his last cyclingnews piece:
“It’s probably time for the UCI to review the rule of allocating one-second difference when there’s a gap between two riders in the middle of the bunch. Bike racing is more and more dangerous. We can’t forget that several riders died this year. In a Grand Tour, two types of riders are under a lot of pressure in the flat stages: the sprinters, of course, and the GC contenders, who can’t afford to lose seconds in a split after having worked so much on marginal gains, as some say. Regulations have to evolve.”
The technology is in place already with timing mats and a finish line photo finish camera placed at the 3km to go point to record riders already. So if times are taken at the 3km to go point in the event of a crash, why not take them for everyone at this point? This means the GC contenders can roll in knowing they will not lose time after this point and let the sprinters get on with trading elbows, diving into corners and generally fighting for the win. This isn’t an original idea, it’s been suggested but perhaps it’s time has come.
There are arguments against this:
- It’s artificial, we are no longer taking the time used to complete the course by the rider but making synthetic adjustments. We do this already by giving riders who finish in a bunch the same time as the first rider across the line and through the use of a time bonuses but perhaps this is just further complication?
- It shunts the problem rather than solving it as the new finish line for the GC riders becomes the 3km to go point so they race for it and their teams jostle for position to reach this point
There is even a potential perverse effect of the existing 3km rule, at least in theory. If you are an overall contender then you know you can tangle with others in the finale because if you crash the rule will rescue you from your mishap. This is a case of moral hazard.
One idea would be to test the rule in some races to evaluate the outcomes on safety, the storytelling of the race and other matters before deciding whether to make it an official rule or not.
With the speed and rivalry sprints are dangerous enough without the spindly-legged yellow jersey crowd trying to get in the way. The 3km rule already exists in the event of a crash but if it applied to all riders all the time then this could help make sprint finishes marginally safe. This would add artifice to the overall classification but we do this already with the existing 3km rule so any change is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, all riders still have to complete the course. A growing number of voices are calling for this to be explored and a trial in some stage races could be worth exploring.