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Electronic timing system causes mass confusion on Ronse start line

Sven Nys loses almost any hope of the Trofee overall after false start confusion in the bPost Bank Trofee opener

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Editor’s Note: Dan Seaton has been literally crawling through the Belgian mud covering European cyclocross since 2008. Each week this season he’ll look ahead to the weekend’s races and answer your questions about ’cross on the other side of the Atlantic. Got a question for your favorite Euro star? Want to know the inside story about the legendary Flemish fields? Send your questions to [email protected].

RONSE, Belgium (VN) — While the bPost Bank Trofee was celebrating a new title sponsor and series format, effectively turning the eight race contest into a stage race awarded to the rider with the shortest cumulative time, another, more subtle rule change sparked controversy on Sunday.

Races of the major European series are controlled by electronic timing systems, and started by computer-controlled red and green lights. In years past, red lights indicated five seconds to the start, while a full panel of green lights meant the race was on. But, in an effort to thwart racers from taking advantage of the predictable system and timing their jump, this season the timing computer will randomize the delay between red and green. When the computer selected the maximum possible delay of seven seconds, confusion ensued.

Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor), who told reporters later he was unaware that the start procedure had changed this year, counted to five and started rolling before he realized the lights had not changed. When the lights changed, Vantornout and much of the field started as usual, but others, including Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) hesitated, assuming Vantornout’s misfire would trigger an official restart.

It was not to be.

“Between the red and green lights there was too much space and a few riders started before the green light appeared,” Nys, clearly disappointed with his third-place ride, said afterwards. “I waited, then also thought that I needed to start — but it was too late. Maybe starting was a mistake. It would have been better to stand still and say it was a false start and [insist] we do it over, and that’s my own fault. I made a mistake to start also, but it was five seconds too late and I was stuck in 25th position for the first lap. And when the two fastest guys in the field at the moment can get a gap, it’s really difficult to close it.”

Despite Nys’ and others’ complaints about the mix-up, the race’s UCI commissaire, Guy Dobbelaere told reporters afterwards that he did not think a restart was necessary, explaining that Vantornout was the only one to seriously cross the line early, and that in the end it only served to slow his start.

And, indeed, except in the most egregious cases, once a race is rolling, officials almost always let it play out, as they did when a camera crew that was still on course interfered with nearly a dozen riders at last year’s World Cup stop in Plzen, Czech Republic, after the gun went off earlier than expected.

But while neither race organizers nor UCI officials opted to take action to reset Sunday’s race, both agreed that the starting format needed to be both accelerated and clarified, acknowledging that the seven-second delay on the start line was too long.

“A seven second pause between red and green is indeed too long,” Dobbelaere told the Flemish website “I would like to see a four-second maximum delay. You cannot hold the whole cyclocross peloton on the line for seven seconds.”

Retired racer Erwin Vervecken, now the sporting coordinator for Golazo, which runs both the race and the Trofee series, promised changes as well, telling reporters he expected that the maximum delay would be set to five seconds by the time elite cyclocross returns to Belgium following the two upcoming World Cup rounds in the Czech Republic.

But despite his disappointment, Nys, the 36 year-old Belgian champion, was philosophical about the larger cost of the error, which left him in third place overall, nearly 85 seconds behind Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor), whose second-place finish and intermediate sprint time bonus gave him a one-second overall advantage over Niels Albert.

“I lost a lot of time in the first two laps, and I missed the sprint after one-and-a-half laps to gain a few seconds in the general classification, so it cost me a lot of time,” said Nys. “I don’t know if it will be possible to close the gap, but it’s quite a lot to be behind after the first race of the season. But winning the general classification is not the most important thing in my career anymore. I just want to win some nice races.”