Commentary: To prevent crashes, UCI should record GC times at 3km to go on sprint stages

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Rider safety is a recurring issue that has been put under scrutiny a number of times in recent seasons, and it resurfaced once again during the Vuelta a España.

Rather than issues of race vehicle accidents or unsuitable weather conditions, this time the spotlight was on late-race incidents involving GC contenders Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) during the Vuelta’s first week.

Kruijswijk hit a pole, left unmarked in the road by organisers, while Contador was squeezed out as riders rode three-abreast into a corner.

Fierce criticism followed Kruijswijk’s crash, notably from the Professional Riders’ Association (CPA). Council member Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal) confirmed that the CPA is lobbying the UCI to enforce a new regulation which would see crash barriers cover the final 3km of race routes, and the issue was discussed at a meeting of the UCI Road Commission in Madrid in late September, and again at Lombardia on September 30.

Such a regulation would certainly have seen Kruijswijk’s accident avoided, but aside from the lack of barriers it seems obvious that the mere nature of how some run-ins are raced can cause problems.

Kruijswijk, for example, was jostling for position towards the front of the peloton among field sprinters when he crashed. Two days later, on Stage 7, Contador hit the deck in the final kilometre on another day for the sprinters.

In both cases, these GC riders felt the need to fight for position at the head of the peloton during the final kilometres of stages that weren’t suited to them — stages for the fastest finishers.

Vuelta Espana 2016 - stage-5 TVE
Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) was jostling for position towards the front of the peloton among field sprinters when he hit an unmarked pole and crashed out of the Vuelta a España with a broken collarbone.

Kruijswijk left the race with a broken collarbone, while Contador remained, soldiering on to fourth overall in Madrid. Weeks after the race has ended, the questions remain: Do GC riders need to be in jostling for position at the end of stages that aren’t really for them? And what can be done in order to keep them safe?

“I think it’s really stupid,” says Alain Gallopin, team director at Trek-Segafredo, who has been in pro cycling for over 30 years. “For me, the GC guys don’t need to be at the front with 3km to go. It’s too dangerous. Everybody is afraid to lose 15 seconds in a split, but by the end of the race, it’s not a question of 15 seconds.

“During the Tour de France, a journalist spoke with me and then he wrote in the Dauphiné. The headline said “Alain Gallopin: Le Tour de la Peur” [The Tour of Fear]. I said everyone is afraid of everything. Nobody is relaxed now. It’s always stress, stress, stress.”

One of the proposed fixes to this problem, debated by Koen de Kort (Giant-Alpecin) among others, has been to take the times of GC riders at the 3km mark, or even earlier. The technology is certainly there, with timing mats and photo-finish cameras already positioned at the 3km mark. Gallopin was not convinced by this idea though, instead saying that the problem is in the mindset of the riders.

“I don’t think [GC times should be taken at 3km], I think the GC leaders have to stay calm,” Gallopin continued. “They all need to stay in the middle of the group and let the sprinters’ teams work, like in the old times. Contador crashed at the beginning of the [2015] Giro, and at the Vuelta. Every day he tried to be at the front, and [Chris] Froome is the same.”

Other team directors discussed the difficulties and nuances of dealing with the issue, and it seems that few have an immediate, conclusive solution.

“Taking GC times earlier can be a solution, but then time gaps can still occur, of course,” said Marc Reef, director at Giant-Alpecin. “With that possibility there will always be stress in the bunch. I don’t know if you change that with a 10km rule, or 15km, 20km… I don’t have a direct solution for it.”

Etixx-QuickStep DS Brian Holm acknowledged that the problem exists, but said he didn’t know what the solution might be.

“I understand when people say it,” he said. “It’s not completely crazy. I think it’s a good discussion to have. I think there might be less crashes if they change 3km to 10km, but on the other hand, it’s a cycling race, you know? It’s part of the game, it’s a battlefield.

“For sure sometimes I see the big crashes, especially at the Tour, and I think there’s something wrong here,” Holm continued. “It’s annoying for the sprinters’ teams, and for sure it has caused some crashes, but I haven’t really made up my mind yet.”

Among the riders, reaction was different. Contador said that he and other GC riders are only racing to the rules, adding that the current rules are not optimal for anybody.

“I know that there are all sorts of different opinions, but I think that cycling in the last years has changed in that aspect [regarding the 3km rule],” he said midway through the Vuelta. “I respect the way everybody does his tactics. Nevertheless, I think sprinters don’t like GC riders fighting with them, and at the same time we GC riders don’t like to fight with the sprinters.”

It’s clear that nobody really enjoys this spectacle of GC riders fighting for position with sprinters on the run-in to flat stages; there was certainly a consensus on the issue among riders and team staff contacted by CyclingTips.

On the other hand, while there are several ideas about what could change to help solve the problem, there is little in the way of agreement about what should happen.

The idea that GC times be taken at the 3km/5km mark — possibly even earlier on flat days — has merit. It takes GC riders out of the equation in the final kilometres and leaves the sprinters to do their thing.

Two riders who have been in and among the action at the front of the peloton are Jens Debusschere and Marcel Sieberg, both key cogs in André Greipel’s Lotto-Soudal leadout train. Both riders had similar opinions about any proposed rule change when questioned about the issue.

“For sure we should take the GC time earlier, in every race,” said Sieberg. The big German added that for the Tour, the time should be taken even further out than 3km to go, as speeds are already so high at the 3km mark. “In the Tour, it could maybe be at 7-8km to go, because if they stop at 3km everybody in the front is full gas already.”

Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal) won Stage 2 of the 2015 Tirreno Adriatico. Photo: Cor Vos.
Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal) won Stage 2 of the 2015 Tirreno Adriatico. Photo: Cor Vos.

His teammate Debusschere also approved of a rule change. “At 5km to go, the GC guys can swing out. If there are gaps because of a crash they solve it by giving everybody the same time, but it shouldn’t be because of a crash,” he said, adding his reservations that riders will just race to the “new finish line.”

Trek-Segafredo sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo is another, among a number of riders, calling for changes to be made, saying that there is no need for GC riders to be fighting for position with sprinters.

“They should take the times at 3km or 5km to go,” Nizzolo said. “As many riders have said, it makes no sense to have GC guys in the final when it’s a sprint. It’s more dangerous for them, and more dangerous for us.”

The Italian sprinter echoed Gallopin’s words, saying that whatever time gaps riders are taking risks to prevent are insignificant over the course of a Grand Tour. “I don’t think, at the end of a three-week race, that it changes the result so much with the GC riders staying in the bunch for the last 3km.”

While there may be some agreement among the people on the ground — riders and team staff — word from the officials who actually decide what happens is rather vague.

The UCI’s Road Commission, made up of representatives from the UCI Management Committee, pro teams, riders and organisers, met in Madrid, and again at Il Lombardia, but any definitive ruling on this issue has yet to be revealed.

When contacted by CyclingTips, the UCI replied with a vague statement: “The issue of riders’ safety is one that is constantly on the agenda of the Road Commission. As stated previously, whatever decision [is] made in such a meeting shall be announced in due course.”

Meanwhile, a CPA spokesperson also stated that the issue would be discussed at the meeting of the Road Commission, but has since declined to make any statements.

“We know that some riders have the idea [to change the rules] but not all of them agree with it. We have in any case considered it into our security plan that we will discuss with the Road Commission.”

A decade ago, late-race crashes prompted the UCI to change what was then the 1km rule to the 3km rule we know today. And just as it was back then, today it’s clear that further changes need to be made in order to keep up with the safety needs of modern cycling.

It’s a single issue, among many regarding safety in the sport, that faces pro cycling today.

Unlike the race vehicle problem (an issue which can seemingly only be solved with numerous solutions, such as comprehensive retraining of drivers and restrictions on vehicle movement), this issue seems less complicated in terms of finding a possible solution.

Changing the rule to take GC times further from the line, by far the most popular solution, is possibly an imperfect fix. However, it will certainly prevent GC riders from being caught up where they shouldn’t be, fighting with the sprinters in the mad dash to the line. As a preventative measure, that would be reason enough to change things.

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