Widening The Gap

The UCI has announced several changes for the World Tour in 2018 including smaller team sizes for the grand tours, a topic covered late last year. Another novelty is going to be tested in the Tour de France starting next week, where the time gap to classify a group of riders, versus a split in the field, goes from one second to three seconds. It’s to help safety in the finish but will require a perceptual adjustment from inside the peloton and the outside.

The current system: a group of riders finish with the same time as the first member of the group to cross the finish line and the group is defined by no more than a gap of one second between all the riders, as soon as a gap wider than one second is measured then a new group is labelled and the second group gets the finishing time of the first member of this group and so on. The time gap is measured on the finish line, first by the timing mats and chips on the bikes for a provisional result and then confirmed/adjusted with a photofinish camera capable of measuring to the nearest one thousandth but adjusted to the nearest second.

New for the Tour de France: and the grand tours in 2018 that a group of riders will still be a group as long as riders are within three seconds of each other. Here’s an excerpt of the UCI announcement:

The revision changes the time gap for a split to three seconds – instead of one – and is intended to address the issue of increased stress and risk during Grand Tour bunch sprints, while retaining the sporting integrity of the sprint and stage.

We can infer that this rule relates to the so-called “sprint stages” only (update 26 June: Stages 2, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 16, 19, 21), and likely to be those where the Three Kilometre Rule applies and not to mountain stages and uphill finishes. It’s another way to address some of the concerns over the Three Kilometre Rule which have been voiced from time to time in and around the peloton.

Will it solve anything? We will have to see. We can run through the physical effects but whether this is accepted psychologically by the peloton remains to be seen. The table above shows the distances involved for a given speed across the finish line. At 60km/h a gap of 16 metres is still within one second and with the new rule at the same speed the gap can go out as far as 50 metres and riders will finish on the same time. By definition this allows more room in the finishing straight, riders no longer have to be bunched together so tightly and should it reduce the pressure on some riders to fight for every metre, especially when coupled with the three kilometre rule. But it’s no panacea, when the Tour de France thunders into town the pressure is on and we will still see some teams with overall ambitions racing for the three kilometre banner in order to place their leader inside the safety zone.

Everyone in the picture finished on the same time

It’s not just the peloton: watch on television and slow motion replays of a sprint finish and in time we’ve got an instinct for spotting a gap only now everyone has to reset their impressions. This changes the habit of a lifetime whereby a group gets the same time as long as they finish as a group, the group can be spread out over the finishing straight and may not look like group but as long as there’s no gap larger than three seconds they all finish together. Reductio ad absurdum it means if the riders came in at 50km/h then each rider could come in every 2.99 seconds and be spaced 40 metres apart from each other like some giant conga yet still make a “group” almost eight kilometres long where the first and last rider get the same time. Absurd, of course because this won’t happen but also because it can happen to a lesser extent with a one second gap today: one second or three, it’s an artificial construct either way. What happens now is that this will be more flagrant. To watch a stage race already involves a certain understanding of the rules and procedures, from how the yellow jersey is awarded to synthetic time bonuses and the three kilometre rule and this new rule revision will require explanation and education.

What six thousandths of a second looks like

Why not go the other way? Grouping riders made sense in the past when an official at the finish line had a mechanical stopwatch. Today the technology exists to time riders precisely so why not base the overall classification on realtime? Probably because if the tech exists, the road doesn’t. This would incentivize teams with a contender for the yellow jersey to place as high as possible on a stage and so we’d see GC teams launching their sprint trains on a daily basis in order to take time, all while the sprinters are trying to win. It would make things very crowded and therefore accident prone.

The rule change will make the finishing straight safer but doesn’t take away the pressure among the top teams trying to pace their GC leaders into position for the final moments of a sprint stage. They will still be racing for the three kilometre banner and trying to maintain a place near the front on the run in to the finish, it’s only in the final moments that they might relax but given the pressures of the Tour which team will back off? Yes the revision is synthetic because riders are not timed based on their finishing position but this has long been the case, the difference is now that the definition of a group has changed.

43 thoughts on “Widening The Gap”

  1. Whilst I like the idea of reducing team sizes for grand tours, I am definitely not a fan of the concept of a three second gap. Of course, it is still theoretical and we will see how the rule actually plays out. If it does significantly increase safety then fair enough but if it doesn’t they should bring it back to the one second.
    You see some GC riders right up there in the sprints who gain 10 seconds from these sort of splits whilst others decide not to. Riding GC is about being overall the best and not just the best climber. Organisers seem to be throwing away TTs, long mountain stages and now there is this rule. You should be able to gain time anywhere, not just on a mountain. Having the handling skills to be on the right side of a split should be valued. Of course, if it does significantly increase safety then I think it should stay but I am not convinced it will.

    • Removing the need for GC riders to be right up amongst the chaos and carnage of sprint finishes is a great idea. It’s such a waste when a rider, whether top GC hopeful or sprinter, who has trained their guts out and lived like a monk for months has their (and their fans’) hopes dashed because of a stupid crash partially caused by too many riders all fighting for position. Anything that could reduce the likelihood of this certainly deserves to be trialled.

      My question is whether this rule would prevent a breakaway rider who is almost caught but crosses the finish line some 40m in front of the bunch from getting a different time? And if so could that deny someone a yellow jersey? I’m thinking of Jan Bakelants on stage 2 of the 2013 TdF where he got the yellow jersey on account of a 1 sec gap between himself and David Millar, who himself had finished 4th on stage 1 and came 2nd one second behind Bakelants on stage 2. Would this rule have denied Bakelants yellow?

      • Btw I realise stage 2 was a medium mountain stage so the rule wouldn’t apply, but the point still stands in relation to flat stages

      • Your first paragraph – when has this happened?
        When did a GC hopeful last crash in the final 3km of a flat sprint stage, ending or badly affecting their participation? It’s a genuine question: it’s bound to have happened, but I don’t remember when it last did, which suggests that this is a rule that is aimed at an imagined problem, rather than a real one.
        Your second paragraph is an extremely good point – does this rule apply to a breakaway and what constitutes a breakaway? Do riders now need to win by 3 seconds? Is it fair for a rider to be denied a yellow jersey in this situation because of this rule? (Yes, it would have happened with the 1 second rule, but that is a big extra gap on the road they need.)
        There seem quite a few downsides to this rule change and not a big upside.

  2. In terms of security issues in cycling, is this sprint time gap thing even one of the more important issues to settle?

    In the long run, I think changing peloton sizes will improve security much more than the gap thing. Obviously, there is still also plenty of work to do in regards to motorcycles around the peloton.

    • It’s more fixable: a stroke of the pen and the rule changes. Making race traffic safer is more subjective and subtle, the UCI has new rules and guidelines for the convoy including motorbikes but it’s harder to solve, it just takes one human mistake for trouble as we saw at the Giro.

  3. I don’t understand what this rule intends to fix at all. Very, very rarely have you seen only riders inside 16m of the first rider given the same time, almost invariably the entire group gets the same time. No idea what this is meant to change about that.

    • It’s not within 16m of the leader, it’s within 16m of the next rider up the road. In a big group everyone is less than 16m from the rider in front so they get the same time. But if a split occurs, forced by a sprint train, GC riders probably need to worry less about making it now, if there isn’t far to go. Seems sensible in outcome, if a bit jarring to watch.

  4. If it ain’t broke, try to fix it. Seems to be the mindset of too many sports administrators trying to justify their existence…

    • i’ve read a lot of comments from sprinters and their teams about how congested it gets in the final 1-2km with GC teams right up there trying to keep their leader at the front. presumably, allowing for 3 second gaps would help keep them out of there and, in theory, keep things safer.

      so in a way it is broken, there really shouldn’t be 12 guys from GC teams on top of the multiple sprint trains.

      • Agreed you do often hear those complaints from sprinters but the crashes I can think of in final KM are almost always down to sprinters themselves. I can’t remember the last time a Sky, BMC or Moviestar domestique caused one so late in the race. Maybe there are incidents I’ve forgotten about but it seems to be a complaint without evidence really.

        • you’re right, I’ve not seen any crashes caused by the GC guys, but I think the general idea had merit.

          racing has changed a lot recently and small adjustments to the rule helps clearly delineate the races within the race. “How the Race was Won” videos do a great job highlighting this trend.

          • Fair point, I’m not against rule changes per se, this one just seems a bit unnecessary, but hopefully it has a positive impact. I just wonder if it’ll add a layer of confusion to the casual viewer if riders clearly some distance behind another are getting the same time. We shall see!

        • Even if GC riders or their domestiques don’t directly cause these crashes they still get caught up in them, potentially denying fans the opportunity to watch them do battle in other mountainous stages.

          Also the mere presence of GC riders and their domestiques in the last km or two leads to a more crowded finale, which I would’ve thought increases the likelihood of crashes

        • The GC riders might not be directly involved in the crashes, but their presence at the front end of the race does reduce the room for manoeuvre for the sprint trains, potentially making crashes more likely among the sprinters.

      • I suspect the pressure and complaints coming from the sprinters and their leadouts are more because their job is being made more stressful and chaotic, rather than outright dangerous. If so, could one result of this be to limit the chances of the ‘wheelsurfers’, as the dominant sprint trains will find things much easier to control?

  5. Why not take the time at 1km before the finish? Only the sprinters (trains) will continu to ride fast that last km amd making it safer….

    • Because then you only move the ‘problem’ back 1km.
      Some would also suggest that you should race the entire course distance.
      I say ‘problem’ because is there one? Have we seen an increase in crashes in the final sprints?
      The big negative with this is that it’s one more thing taking the brain out of cycling. Clever riders could gain time the old way.

      • i think there is a problem, notice how long the GC teams are lingering on the front when the sprint trains need to go to work? that’s a fairly new development within the last 5 or so seasons.

        • But like Michael Brunskill above I don’t remember these GC teams causing a crash.
          Is this rule to stop crashes or to stop sprint trains complaining?
          This rule will stop GC contenders from trying to take time on ‘flat stages’, which seems a shame if the rule is not to stop a genuine problem.

    • Agree 100 %

      All riders that come through the sprint group or main peloton at the red kite should be awarded the same time. Those who do not care about the finishing sprint (probably 3/4ths of the peleton have no dogs in the sprint fight), can sit up and coast home while the sprint trains can duel it out in the last 1k.

      The obvious question mark for me is if the break or an attacking rider still have a gap in the last 1k. Will the GC boys still be awarded the same time as the group ?

  6. More stupid crazy sanitizing things. If mass sprints cause security concerns, away with them, they won´t be missed much. Otherwise, continue as ever. and only change what clearly needs changing, like diminishing team power in GTs.

    • Umm, yes, they would be missed. _You_ might not miss them, but many others would. They’re a major thread in the tapestry of cycling.

  7. Rather than using the clock, they could just paint a (thin or dotted?) line on the road 40-50m before the finish line and use this as the basis for judging gaps.

    • Did this a few times at circuit races and offered a prime to riders who could cross the line this distance ahead of all others at least twice in a row. If more than one rider achieved it, the prime was shared proportionately. Worked fine.

  8. Other than going for pure time gain, the tactic of GC riders forcing their rival / s to sprint though purely just to put them under stress and *at danger* of a crash is something that may not stop.
    I’m thinking most obviously of Sky racing in to make Quintana follow.
    I think it’s a valid tactic too, although undoubtedly it makes the sprint more hectic and hazardous.
    But *that’s the point*.

  9. I’m expecting 2 things to happen

    1- The smart riders / teams will recognize that there’s some energy to be saved at the finish line because the risk of missing the random split has been drastically reduced
    2 – The majority will continue as is for another year or two, because cycling is a place where some still have to be convinced about the validity of aero bikes.

  10. It seems to me that while this may make things safer in the finishing straight, it also has the potential to make it more dangerous from km 3 to km 1. The GC teams are still going to drill it at the front until the 3km ‘finish line’, but now they really have no incentive to keep riding at all beyond that. So the temptation could be to sit up completely at this point, leading to large numbers of riders slowing and trying to filter back through a fast moving pack, and causing chaos as they do so.

  11. I don’t think it will matter much. If a gap opens up somewhere in the last 5k there’s still a big risk that the difference gets more than 3s at some point. So the gc teams will still be fighting to stay near the front.
    What would help is some more 90k time trials and multiple 250k/6k vertical stages per race. This would push the time gaps so much larger that gc riders would not risk the rough and tumble of sprint finishes for a few small seconds. I’m not sure this is best for the viewers though.
    Then again, maybe part of the reason why gc riders want to be at the front is because you run less of a risk of crashing if there are less riders in front of you. In that case, neither of these measures would help.
    Anyway, I support the 8 rider team size, it is better for safety and race attractiveness.

  12. How about awarding points for each place? 180 riders in the field, first over the line gets 180 points, second gets 179 points, and so on. Convert the points into time bonuses and calculate it into a riders overall time. No, I haven’t thought it through, just an idle thought, but I wonder would it work?

    • That’s an omnium format. So now you’re getting in the territory where losing 10 seconds (and 65 places) is more damaging than giving up a minute in an uphill finish.

      Given the state of technology you could simply forget about the gaps and just record the exact time, see where the chips fall. I think that in that case GC guys would probably mark each other but who knows. It’s a difficult problem to tackle.

  13. What about a time difference rule? Slightly more complex but still understandable for the riders;
    GC time is taken at 3km to go BUT for that time to stand you must go on to finish within 30 seconds (or some specified time gap) of the stage winner. GC riders can then sit back from the sprinters/sprint trains/bunch sprint but still need to keep pedaling to maintain their 3km time. Total time for the stage would be your 3km to go time plus the time it took the stage winner to cover the final 3km. Current inside 3km to go misfortune rule to be kept also.

    Whilst this seems on face value to be overly complex it isn’t- your time gaps will just be what was there at 3km to go. For your GC time the final 3km doesn’t matter, unless you lose more than 30 seconds to the stage winner in that distance at which point your actual elapsed time would count.

    There are some tactical implications if a GC contender is in a breakaway that survives on a ‘sprint’ stage- once the group hit 3km to go the GC rider smirks, swings across the road and refuses to do any more work…then sits on for 3km and wins the sprint (unlikely scenario but possible).

    Obviously this requires the equipment and manpower to take riders’ times at 3km to go as well as the finish so would be restricted to major tours but since this issue only comes up at major tours…

    • Why not allow them to sit up ?

      30 secs means they have to keep racing. And it exposes them to the dangers of the sprinty boys having a crash and delaying their arrival due to bodies, bikes, and race vehicles being stopped in the road.

      Easiest solution is force all vehicles, except official race vehicles carrying bikes, wheels and medical off the course somewhere within 3-5 km to go. No team vehicles. Race jury also needs to sort through these potential issues within the Spirit of the Rules and competition and not get caught up in the “Letter of the Law” type rulings in terms of time gaps.

      Let’s get these vehicle drivers properly trained to give the riders loads of room. Whether it be tv, race, or team vehicles. I still have horrible flashbacks of Jonny Hoogerland and others being taken out simply because a team vehicle felt the need to get up the road to their rider who was 100 meters ahead of the group.

      In a sprint finish there are maybe 30-40 riders trying to win or help a teammate win. Everyone else should just stay out of the melee.

  14. Why not just let the race commissiare neutralize the race when a mass sprint finish is going to happen. Be it 2 km or 7 km from the end? Announce over race radio and let the trains do their thing

    • Concur, or disallow the practice of having sprint trains. Just allow each team’s designated sprinter to fight it out for stage podium placings. The peeling off of rider from the sprint trains causes blocking or boxing out or crashing of other riders, specially if some sprinters want to sprint on a different line.

    • Good idea. Make it based on the course and the commissaire’s professional judgement. I’m not trying to get rid of competition, but nobody benefits when there’s a mass pile-up before a finish (fans definitely don’t want to see that – most of us ride ourselves, and it doesn’t make us comfortable seeing guys hit the deck). Of course GC rider/teams are only a small part of these pile-ups, but it makes sense to eliminate as much risk as possible. If GC teams/riders are fighting to be up near the front to hit the 3km line instead of hanging out at the back of the race, it provides one more layer of stress/anxiety.

      Note, I’m not saying GC teams can sit up… but they should be forced/encouraged to sit at the back as long as possible.

    • Why not? Especially the sprint stages. The casual fan does care care one whit about a flat 200km stage that finishes in a sprint. Run a circuit type course with 3 or 4 sprints over 50k. With the points and time bonuses (allows points and leaders jerseys to trade hands which heightens fan interest.)And the fans get to see loads of sprinting. (And crashes)

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