Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) lost nine seconds of his slim lead in the Critérium du Dauphiné on stage 4, when he found himself on the wrong side of a split in the peloton caused by a crash from Cofidis rider Borut Bozic. He now leads the overall classification by just four seconds on Chris Froome (Sky), who made the front split and gained nine seconds.
It was an unexpected result to a stage that should have been uncomplicated for the overall contenders, who were content to take a back seat to the sprinters on the relatively flat 176km stage from Tain-l'Hermitage to Belley.
Contador said the stage was calm as expected until the finish, which he described as "truly crazy". "Initially, it seemed as if the group would cross the finish line together. However, right after the 2km mark there was a big pile-up which caused gaps in the peloton."
UCI 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."
The crash was caused when Cofidis rider Borut Bozic clipped a concrete barrier and flew through the air into the peloton, luckily only taking out AG2R La Mondiale's Alexis Gougeard and not causing a bigger wreck. But the disruption to a very high pace was enough to cause the split, according to Tinkoff directeur sportif Steven De Jongh.
"The crash caused some real uncertainty in the group. We were expecting the 3km rule to be applied, but we ended up losing time," De Jongh said. "Alberto and some of the other GC riders tried to fight back to the front, but some of the other teams' sprint train riders sat up and delayed the riders behind and the commissaries allowed the time gaps to stand."
De Jongh was frustrated by the decision not to apply the UCI rule 2.6.027 which states, "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," therefore Contador should be given the same time as the stage winner.
The rule is designed to keep overall contenders from losing time due to a crash or mechanical when there is little room to chase back on. But many teams interpret it to mean overall contenders will be protected from being caught behind a crash, as sometimes happens, for instance, when the road is blocked by a large wreck. Sometimes the officials will neutralise the GC at a certain point while letting the sprinters battle for the stage win in the case of a particularly dangerous finish or bad weather, but that was not the case on Thursday.
"We were hoping the decision would be clearer – sometimes the jury will make a decision that goes for you, sometimes it goes against you, but the uncertainty creates lots of stress for the GC riders," De Jongh said. "It needs to be clearer so the sprint teams can take the risk, and the GC riders can stay safe – especially at the end of the day where there can be a lot of street furniture that can cause crashes."
Contador echoed the sentiment. "The truth is nine seconds don't worry me, but what worries me more is the 3km rule. It has to be applied and we need clarity."
The Critérium du Dauphiné is far from decided, with Contador's gap to Froome only two seconds greater than that to third placed Richie Porte (BMC), but there will be much larger separation in the coming mountain stages.
"The Dauphiné is like the Tour. You don't know how you feel until you reach the mountain stages," Contador said. "I will take it day by day. We finished this first half of the race with the yellow jersey, something that wasn't in our plans. Our goal was to have a good first day and then see how we are reaching the mountain stages. Despite having the yellow jersey we won't take more responsibilities than necessary. We will see how tomorrow unfolds and we will adapt our plans. We will take it one day at a time, see how the legs feel and check our form."