The opening stages of the Tour de France tend to be fast and nervous. General classification candidates are eager not to lose any time to their rivals and therefore want to finish as high as possible. But, when those early stages are bunch sprint finishes, the combination of top sprinters and GC riders mixing it in the gallop can be a dangerous one, at least according to Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors).
Gilbert's teammate, and race leader at the time, Fernando Gaviria was caught up in a crash in the finale of stage 2 and was unable to contest the sprint, which was won by Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
"What irritates me, is that certain riders, in spite of the three-kilometer rule that the International Cycling Union (UCI) created still 'fight' within the first 20 positions of the peloton," Gilbert said, according HLN.com. "Climber types are usually not as fast and manoeuvreable on the flat, which significantly increases the risk of falls. Too bad, because that regulation is especially for them. Yet, they continue to be guilty of the same mistake. We do not get in between them at the foot of a col, do we?”
Introduced by the UCI in 2005, article 2.6.027 of the UCI's regulations states that, "in the event that a rider or riders suffer a fall, puncture or mechanical incident in the last three kilometres and such an incident is duly recognised, the rider or riders involved are credited with the same finishing time of the rider or riders they were with at the time of the incident." This applies only on flat finishes and not on uphill or mountain finishes.
The purpose of the rule was to protect the non-sprinters, particularly the GC favourites, by keeping them out of the hurly-burly of an often frenetic bunch sprint. However, it is not uncommon to see the top non-sprinters near the front. On Stage 1, for example, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Rafal Majka (Bora-hansgrohe) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) finished ninth, 10th and 11th.
One notable example of a GC rider getting into trouble in a bunch sprint occurred on stage 7 of the 2014 Tour de France. Andrew Talansky, team captain for Garmin-Sharp, complained that Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) had taken him down within sight of the finish line in a bunch sprint of more than 40 riders. Interestingly, fourth on the stage was Tom Dumoulin, neither a sprinter nor at the time a GC candidate. Other non-sprinters in the top 20 on that day included Nibali, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Richie Porte (BMC Racing).
Speaking to the press after Sunday's stage, Dumoulin admitted that it was not a good situation, especially with a transition from wide road to the narrow city streets. "We storm like crazy bulls on a town. Everyone can move from behind at any time. That is scary, though. If it is narrow and there are turns, you can’t do that.”