Monday, January 25, 2016

Proposed update to the 1-second gap rule: 3-second gap

It's been a long time since I've done a post here, mainly because I've been working from home a lot, and the loss of my mind-numbing Caltrain commute means loss of blogging time.

But I'm compelled to break the silence, at least briefly, to propose a change to the UCI cycling rules... Here's a video of the final km of stage 4 of the Tour Down Under this year. It was a twisty-curvy run to the finish, riders strung out in a single line, the sprinters and "puncheurs" at the front, the climbers drifting further back. Results are on CyclingNews. You can't directly see it from the video but Richie Port (BMC) let a gap open in front of him, that gap according to the finish line timing exceeding the 1 second threshold of the UCI rules (general regulations):

1.2.107 When several riders finish in a group, all riders in the same groupe shall be credited with the same time. If there is a difference of one second or more between the back of the back wheel of the last rider in a group and the front of the front wheel of the first rider of the following group, the timekeeper-commissaires shall give a new time taken on the first rider of this group. Any difference of one second or more (back wheel – front wheel) between riders implies a new time. (text modified on 1.01.05; 1.01.09).

A side effect of this gap was Cannondale's Michael Woods, who was behind Port, also lost 8 seconds, a time loss which would eventually cost him third place in the overall standings.

The big problem here is (as seen in the video) it takes a good number of seconds for a full pack to cross the line with a technical finish. Those more than a second from the front are at the mercy of riders. This creates an anomalous situation. In racing in general, not just cycling, if your competitors go faster that doesn't help you. Here it can -- the rider in front of Port went faster, opening a gap, and that helped Gerrans increase his lead over Port. Gerrans eventually won by 9 seconds, so it would have been 1 second without the gap (all other things the same), but still that was a substantial time difference in a race like this one.

You might say "well then riders should stay near the front". But the whole point of this rule is to reduce the pressure on riders being at the front. This is a safety thing. Without the 1-second rule you'd have riders trying to force their way through dense packs ahead in order to minimize the time gap to the leaders. This would be disaster. But with random gaps potentially opening in a large finish, that pressure may be attenuated but it still exists.

A solution is to reduce the penalty for gaps opening. I would write the rule as follows:

1.2.107 When several riders finish in a group, all riders in the same groupe shall be credited with the same time. If there is a difference of one second or more between the back of the back wheel of the last rider in a group and the front of the front wheel of the first rider of the following group, the timekeeper-commissaires shall give a new time taken on the first rider of this group. Any difference of at least one second but less than three seconds (back wheel – front wheel) implies a time equal to the time of the group ahead plus the time of the gap (one to three seconds). Any difference of three seconds or more (back wheel – front wheel) between riders implies a new time. (text modified on 1.01.05; 1.01.09; 1.01.17).

The new text is in boldface. So if the gap is one or two seconds to the rider ahead, instead of getting a fresh new time with a gap relative to the leader of that group, you get a time with a gap relative to the trailing rider of the group. So if the leaders cross the line from time 0:00:00 to 0:00:07, taking 7 seconds to cross, then there is a 1-second gap, then the next rider under the present rules would get a time 0:00:08, while under the proposed rule change, he would get a time of 0:00:01. This seems a more appropriate penalty: a 1-second gap caused a 1-second penalty on overall time, not an 8-second penalty.

At some point, though, a gap means you weren't able to keep up, and a fresh time is appropriate. I set that at 3 seconds because it seems to me 3-seconds really does imply a serious split. 1.0 seconds, though, can readily happen, as was shown in this finish video at the Tour Down Under.