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Commentary: Roubaix’s time cut rule is too harsh

Andrew Hood argues that not giving riders who finish outside the time limit an official result at Roubaix is the wrong approach.

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BRUSSELS (VN) — What do Maarten Wynants (LottoNL-Jumbo), Borut Bozic (Astana), and Taco Van Der Hoorn (Roompot-Nederlandse) have in common? They were among 19 riders who were time cut from Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix.

They filtered in, long after the winners had looped around the Roubaix velodrome, in groups of three or four. Löic Chetout (Cofidis) was alone for more than 34 minutes after Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) dashed to victory. Hardly anyone noticed, except the race jury.

“Paris-Roubaix is over,” Chetout wrote on Twitter. “’Hors délai,’ but it’s over.”

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Jonas Rickaert (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) echoed that sentiment:

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On Sunday, the race jury took no pity at Roubaix even though it was the fastest edition in the race’s history, with an average speed of 45.204 kph. The time cut, or “hors délai,” was about 27:28, meaning Jay Thomson (Dimension Data) was the last official finisher in 102nd place at 27:12 back. The first group of riders over the time limit was led by Berden De Vries (Rompoot), about three minutes too slow, while the last — Roubaix rookie and world points race champion Jonathan Dibben (Sky) — was nearly 20 minutes in arrears.

“It was hell,” said Dan McLay (Fortuneo-Vital Concept), who rode in at 115th, about seven minutes beyond the time cut. “I wanted to give up after 150km, but I held on to the velodrome. I was no longer lucid. I couldn’t even enjoy riding onto the velodrome.”

Paris-Roubaix is unlike any race in cycling. The cobbles, the crashes, the dust, and dangers mean the race lives up to its moniker of a Sunday in Hell. Every rider has their private story of woe, of overcoming spills and mechanicals, and of the dogged determination of simply arriving to the finish line. It’s a badge of honor inside the peloton to survive cycling’s infamous “l’enfer du Nord.”

Except for a few hardy riders off the front, however, most of the Roubaix field has no real chance of winning. That’s no different than any other race, but at Roubaix more than other races, riders race on pride, or fear, or both. On Sunday, 198 started, 102 were awarded official times, 77 abandoned (including UAE-Emirates’ Andrea Guardini, who was stopped by police after being caught riding to the finish line on a highway), and 19 raced all the way to the line simply to finish.

“I’m disappointed. I have no other words,” said Benoit Jarrier, McLay’s teammate who finished about four minutes OTL. “I punctured at the entrance of the first sector. That’s never a good time to die at Roubaix. I could never regain contact, and it’s hard to ride Roubaix after losing the bunch in the first sector. After that, the only objective was to arrive to the velodrome.”

Van Der Hoorn, who rode in third-from-last at more than 10 minutes late, said he endured two crashes, one broken wheel, and three punctures, and pushed all the way to the velodrome because he wanted to enter the historic showers awaiting anyone who finishes Roubaix.

For those 19 riders OTL, their Roubaix will only count as a personal victory. No official result will appear on their palmares.

The rule is simple enough: riders must finish with 8 percent of the winner’s time. It’s written in plain black and white on page 15 of the Paris-Roubaix road book, under Article 7.

“All the riders arriving beyond 8 percent of the winner’s time will not receive a classification,” the rule reads. “The time cut can be revised in case of exceptional circumstances by the College of Commissaires, in consultation with the race organizers.”

Cycling, like in life, is full of rules: some arcane, some practical, and, in the case of the “hors-délai” rule at Roubaix, some that simply do not make sense.

The time cut rules are reasonable enough in a stage race. No one wants to see riders sand-bagging to save their legs for a specific stage at the expense of the honesty of the race. But in a race like Roubaix? There is no tomorrow. Riders who finish should get an official time. They respected the race and the fans, and the organization and the race jury should, too.

With 19 riders hors délai, 2017 saw a particularly high harvest. Last year only saw four riders OTL, with seven in 2015. In 2012, there were a whopping 28 riders OTL.

The post-Roubaix angst after being time cut is nothing new, but the rule rarely becomes an issue in other one-day races because most riders easily finish within the time cut. The application of the rule simply reconfirms how dreadful Roubaix truly is, and underscores why it should be relaxed on a day unlike any other.

“I think it’s a bit of bullshit, really,” 2007 winner Stuart O’Grady said after he was time cut in 2011. “You go through hell and back to finish Roubaix. You do it out of pride, and out of the respect for the fans and the race. They should give the guys a bit of credit for finishing.”

The race jury can make exceptions due to extenuating circumstances, like we saw last summer at the Vuelta a España on the wild stage to Formigal. The peloton blew up early on the short, steep stage into the Pyrénées, and after nearly two weeks of on-the-rivet racing, the gruppetto sat up and pedaled routinely to the line. Under a strict interpretation of the rules, 91 riders would have been kicked out. Organizers and the race jury agreed that the race couldn’t continue with a peloton cut in half, even though Sky’s Chris Froome agreed that the riders should be eliminated — including nearly his entire Vuelta squad.

On other occasions, the race jury follows the rules to the T. Remember when Ted King was time cut at the 2013 Tour de France in the team time trial stage by just seven seconds? King had separated his shoulder in a crash in stage 1, and then rode the entire TTT alone after being dropped by his teammates early.

Tyler Farrar (Dimension Data), the only American racing in Roubaix this year, took a philosophical view. He came in with the first group to miss the time cut at 30:49 back, but he wouldn’t let it sour his day.

“I think it’s just part of the deal. The rules are the rules,” Farrar wrote in an e-mail. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really change anything in my life that I was HD. The nice thing about Roubaix is that they still let you ride onto the velodrome even if you’re outside the time limit. I think that is the really special part of the race. If they stopped you short at the track after fighting through to there then I would say it was cruel.”

At least the race jury cannot take away the memory of riding into the velodrome.