Why Remco Evenepoel kept his Vuelta lead after 3 km rule confusion

Chaos, conspiracy theories, and confusion over the 3 km rule flipped the Vuelta on its head, then unflipped it a few minutes later.

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Chaos, conspiracy theories, and confusion over the three-kilometer rule flipped the Vuelta a España on its head, then unflipped it a few minutes later.

We now have some clarity: Remco Evenepoel remains in the lead of the Spanish Grand Tour, holding onto a 1’26” advantage over Primož Roglič as the race dives into its difficult final week. Status quo, essentially, despite a finish that was anything but ordinary. Roglič gained eight seconds and lost quite a bit of blood and skin. Evenepoel rolled in well back with the confidence of a rider whose issue came inside the final three kilometers, as the Internet wondered aloud why his flat tire looked like it had so much air in it.

That final result wasn’t always clear. In the immediate aftermath of the stage, confusion over the implementation of the three-kilometer rule, which allows a rider who suffers a mechanical or crash in the final three kilometers of a non-mountain stage to get the same time as their group, as well as the three-second rule, which extends the definition of “gap” on sprint stages, temporarily had Roglič in the lead of the race.

The post-stage confusion on Tuesday stemmed from the stage’s uphill-but-not-mountainous finish, won by Mads Pedersen but defined by a late charge from Roglič. Did the stage qualify as a sprint stage? Did the three-kilometer rule apply?

Sort of, and yes.

There are two types of stages specifically called out in the Vuelta’s official roadbook. The first is “Stages with high-altitude finales,” and these stages have no three kilometer rule. Time is time on these stages, no mulligans. The rule is fundamentally about safety, and the idea is that if you crash in the finale of a mountain stage, that’s probably your own fault. The list of mountain stages for this Vuelta includes stages 6, 8, 9, 12, 14, 15, 17, 18, and 20. All other stages are run with the three-kilometer rule in place. So that would include Tuesday’s stage 16.

A second list marks out the “Stages with expected mass sprint arrivals,” stages 2, 3, 7, 11, 13, and 21. Stage 16 isn’t on this list, either, because the finish was too hard to be a guaranteed bunch sprint.

Stages on this second list are run under the auspices of not only the three-kilometer rule, but also the three-second rule. The three-second rule increases the amount of space between groups that officially counts as a “gap” from one second to three seconds. That means that a two-second gap in the middle of the peloton is no concern; the second half of the peloton still gets the same time as the first half.

Stages not on either list qualify for the three-kilometer rule, but do not qualify for the three-second rule. Stage 16 is one of those stages.

The Remco Flat

Adding to all this confusion was a proliferation of mild-to-moderate conspiracy theorizing surrounding Evenepoel’s mechanical. That mechanical took place near the base of the final climb, as Roglič was firing off the front, inside the final three kilometers.

At 2.5 kilometers to go, Evenepoel suffered what he later said was a flat rear tire. Comfortably inside the final three kilometers, he lost only eight seconds to Roglič in the overall, dropping his lead from 1’34” to 1’26”. Without the three-kilometer rule in place, he would have lost nearly three minutes and the lead of the race. This latter scenario is what the results showed in the minutes after the finish.

Only, as Adam Blythe and Dan Lloyd carefully pointed out on the GCN post-race show, it certainly looked like Evenepoel’s tire still had plenty of air in it.

Without squeezing the rear tire myself, speculating about the inflation of a tire that takes up a few pixels on a TV screen feels woefully overconfident. I’m loathe to give this one too much *ahem* air. But it is worth noting a few things.

First, Evenepoel is on a tubeless tire setup with sealant. This means that in the event of a puncture his tire is likely to go slightly flat, but not fully flat, as the sealant takes a moment to fill the hole but it does eventually do so. Evenepoel could have been rolling around on 30 psi (~2 bar), for example. That’s enough to ride on, and will look mostly pumped up from afar, but will feel dangerous in corners. If I were him, I’d ride a tire with that sort of pressure under the three-kilometer banner and then promptly pull over and put my hand up, much as he did do.

Evenepoel even seemed to admit this was the case. “I was a little bit scared in the last 4-5km,” he said. “I wanted to move up on the steep bump but my rear wheel just went off so I felt like I had a flat tire.”

Second, he may have been running tire liners, which would help even a fully flat tire look a bit plumper than usual. Our tech team doesn’t believe Quick-Step AlphaVinyl runs liners for Grand Tours, but we haven’t checked in on the team’s setup in a couple of months.

So was it a real flat? Or did Evenepoel just not feel like charging up the final 2.5 kilometers as fast as he could? No idea, but the tubeless/sealant/half-flat scenario is reasonably likely.

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