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Three-second rule pumps breathing room into Tour de France bunch sprints

LIEGE, Belgium (VN) — Maybe Peter Sagan and the other sprinters won’t be complaining about the GC riders “getting in the way” during the bunch sprints in this year’s Tour de France.

A new rule that eases how time gaps are measured at the finish line on bunch sprints is designed to ease the pressure inside the peloton on selected flat stages. Most welcome the change.

“I think it’s going to create less stress, and there will be less victims,” said Trek-Segafredo sport director Stephen De Jongh. “The GC riders all know this rule is there to protect them. They know they don’t have to be in the first 10 places anymore.”

Last year after winning a stage, Sagan bitterly complained about GC riders “getting in the way” during the mass sprints. And he was right.

Fearful of losing valuable seconds if the bunch split up in the closing meters of a mass gallop, major GC teams like Sky and BMC Racing bump shoulders with the sprint trains to keep their respective captains near the front of the pack. That only means the already stressful and dangerous high-speed bunch sprints are that much more treacherous.

The UCI is trying to diffuse that situation by expanding the time-gap rule from one to three seconds. At 60kph, that’s a considerable difference, widening the gap from about 15 or so meters to around 50 meters.

“It is a great start to relieve some of that pressure,” said Orica-Scott sport director Matt White. “There have been a few crashes over the years because the GC teams are pushing their leaders, basically, doing the sprint … I think people will warm to it when they see that the rule is applied in a fair way; when they see there was a gap, and they didn’t impose a time difference.”

The Tour’s top GC riders are regularly exasperated when the race jury imposes a gap even when the peloton largely rolls in together on sprint stages. The culprit is often a setup man sitting up after taking a pull and someone else losing the wheel. Time gaps are measured not from wheel-to-wheel, but rather from the first rider in a lead group to the first rider in the follow group. So even a relatively small splinter of a few bike lengths could produce race-altering losses of several seconds or even more for GC riders.

Bernhard Eisel, a key leadout man for Mark Cavendish at Dimension Data, said the adjustment is long overdue. Eisel said it favors both the sprinters trying to unwind their kick and the GC riders looking to not lose time.

“We would ask for even a little bit more, but it is a good start. It will take a few days to see to implement, but already Sunday we could see it was a bit more relaxed in the final kilometer,” Eisel said. “It’s still a decision by the commissaire, not a computer, so that is good. It makes it easier and safer for everybody.”

The new rule, rolled out at the Tour de Suisse last month, is part a larger push to create safer racing conditions across the Tour. The UCI and race organizers have been working behind the scenes to try to enhance safety at all races, with new efforts in extreme-weather protocol, vehicle safety, and even the suggestion of reducing the size of the peloton.

Others advocate that an even better way to improve safety in the bunch sprints would be to take the stage finish time with 1km to go and then allow the sprinters to make their race without interference from the rest of the peloton. Some even suggest the time could be taken at 3km to go. Eisel threw out 20km to go.

Yet others submit that the time should be taken at the finish line, and insist that handling the stress of a bunch sprint is simply part of being a complete bike rider.

“If a climber cannot handle their bikes in the sprints, well, maybe they’re not GC riders. You have to fight that fight,” said Dimension Data sport director Rolf Aldag. “If it’s really about safety, OK, let’s give it a try. But if people back off and just roll home easy and wave to the crowd, well this is not bike racing. And I am absolutely against it.”

No matter what happens, the bunch sprints are dangerous business for everyone inside the peloton.

It didn’t matter in Monday’s hilltop finale, but the bunch sprint is back in the cards Tuesday. Sky’s Chris Froome said it can only help.

“This is what I’ve been pushing for,” Froome said. “Last year already when there were a lot of sprint teams complaining that the GC guys are right up there. It’s one of the things I suggested, that if the 1-second rule was relaxed a little bit and there weren’t splits so frequently in sprint stages, then you probably wouldn’t have 200 guys fighting in the last few Ks and it will make the finishes safer. So that’s a good thing.”

But how much will it change? Froome admitted that when the race is on, there’s only one place to be.

“It’s never going to change,” he said. “[The first stages] of a grand tour are always going to be stressful. Everyone is going to be wanting to stay at the front. That’s just the nature of the sport. Those crashes are inevitable.”

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