Tuesday, July 17, 2012

proposed crash rule for Grand Tours

My pick for the bottom step of the Tour podium was Ryder Hesjedal. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to see whether he was up to the task. He crashed on the sixth stage and abandoned before the next stage.

For as long as I've followed cycling, crashes in the Tour, Vuelta, and Giro have taken their toll on the general classification. Serious contenders are either taken out of the race outright, or lose so much time they are no longer in a position to contend. Crashing is a part of racing. Bike racing isn't about finding he physiologically superior rider, although physical aptitude a part of success. It's also about strategy, about tactics, and about luck. Luck is a critical component to the interest of cycling.

Crashing is just one component of cycling's luck. Bike racing is carried out on real roads, for example, and real roads provide the risk of changes in weather, shifts in the wind, and debris which can lead to punctures. And since real roads aren't fully predictable, cyclists who want to go fast will always take risks, and risk implies failure. Crashing will always be a part of cycling's risk budget.

Simon Gerrans does a Hoogerland in stage 3, 30 km from finish. Sydney Morning Herald.

But perhaps what we have today goes beyond an optimal dose of that risk. Rules in sport are designed to mitigate risk. In auto racing, rules are in place which limit the speed cars can reach. In cycling, there's rules limiting the safety margin of equipment, including the mandatory use of helmets. And in virtually all international sports, we have anti-doping rules which attempt to reduce the risk to which cyclists expose their health. We want riders to compete risk, but we want the advantage of truly reckless behavior to be mitigated by rules.

The issue with the crashes is that there's so many of them that the general classification riders need to try to stay ahead of them. There's nothing new about this, which is why the UCI has rule 2.6.027, which says an attempt is made to rectify crashes which happen in the last 3 km. But what may be new is for how long the GC riders need to be in the front. This rule at one time was for only 1 km, since this was long enough to cover dangerous sprints, but with the rise of team coherence and communication the paradigm of sprints changed, and by 3 km out full-on mayhem has already begun. So the safety margin was extended in 2005. So now GC riders are at least relieved of the obligation to stay at the front of the pack in the last 3 km. Here's the rule:

2.6.027 In the case of a duly noted fall, puncture or mechanical incident in the last three kilometers of a road race stage, the rider or riders involved shall be credited with the time of the rider or riders in whose company they were riding at the moment of the accident. His or their placing shall be determined by the order in which he or they actually cross the finishing line. If, as the result of a duly noted fall in the last three kilometers, a rider cannot cross the finishing line, he shall be placed last in the stage and credited with the time of the rider or riders in whose company he was riding at the time of the accident.

But now even 3 km may not be sufficient. And it's not just for how much distance the riders need to be in the front: it's how many riders need to be there. You've got your GC guys trying to stay out of trouble, the guys supporting the GC guys who brought them there, then there's the sprinters, of course, and but also the sprinter lead out trains, and of course the riders chasing down the ubiquitous breakaway. That's simply more riders than spots available. It's like taking a gas and compressing it into a small volume. According to the universal gas law the pressure builds. And when gas pressure gets out of control, the result is always the same.


So can anything be done? Let's consider another rule which removes the temptation for risk, one which has been in the sport for many decades if not a full century, is the one neutralizing the effect of rail crossings:

2.3.035 The following rules shall apply:
  1. One or more riders who have broken away from the field are held up at a level crossing but the gates open before the field catches up. No action shall be taken and the closed level crossing shall be considered a mere race incident.
  2. One or more riders with more than 30 seconds' lead on the field are held up at a level crossing and the rest of the field catches up while the gates are still closed. In this case the race shall be neutralised and restarted with the same gaps, once the official vehicles preceding the race have passed. If the lead is less than 30 seconds, the closed level crossing shall be considered a mere race incident.
  3. If one or more leading riders make it over the crossing before the gates shut and the remainder of the riders are held up, no action shall be taken and the closed level crossing shall be considered a race incident.
  4. Any other situation (prolonged closure of the barrier, etc.) shall be resolved by the commissaires. This article shall apply equally to similar situations (mobile bridges, obstacles on the route, etc.).

So here we have two rules designed to mitigate the effect of luck on the general classification. In one case, time gaps due to crashes in the final 3 km on flat stages are discounted if possible. And in another case, if a crossing gate closes on a portion of the field, other portions of the pack not directly affected are held up to neutralize the effect of the crossing gate.

The solution, I think, is to apply this same principle to crashes which happen outside the 3 km sprint zone. All the required language is there, it just needs to be appropriately combined. This isn't a new idea, @steephill proposed something like it on Twitter in response to a comment by @Vaughters.

So what I propose is that, in a stage race, any crash which "substantially retards the progress" of at least "approximately twenty riders" outside the 3 km sprint radius be treated similarly to a closed level crossing, and riders be held up for time which in the judgement of officials is sufficient to allow those who are able to continue racing within a prudent time, for example no more than five minutes. This could help take some of the extreme incentive off riders to need to be at the front all the time when the going gets hot.

Ironically the effect of such a rule, reducing the cost of large crashes, could make such crashes far less likely. With less need for everyone to be at the front, it would allow for a relaxation of the reckless risk taking needed to be there.

Cycling may not always be about the best rider winning, but it would be nice if more of the best riders were able to stay in contention in the biggest races for a bit longer than they do in this time of "everyone to the front!"

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