Evenepoel finishes stage three of the Tour de France 2024.

Why did Tadej Pogačar lose his yellow jersey?

The Tour de France is decided on overall time, but sometimes that's not enough.

A glimpse of what could have been to his left …

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 01.07.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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When a crash with 2.5 km to go disrupted the peloton on stage 3 of the 2024 Tour de France, most of the riders who weren’t interested in contesting the sprint just sat up.

Longstanding UCI rules hold that on stages expected to end in a bunch finish, any rider involved in or held up by a race incident like a crash or mechanical within the final 3 km will receive the same finishing time as the group he was in prior to the event. This year, stage 3 of the Tour provided an early trial for a plan to move that boundary out to 5 km.

When the crash occurred, the pack was still substantially together and no real splits had yet opened. So with almost all riders in the pack credited with the same finishing time as stage winner Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty), why did the yellow jersey change hands from UAE Team Emirates’ Tadej Pogačar to EF Education-EasyPost’s Richard Carapaz?

That goes down to the rules of the race, both the UCI’s and those of Tour promoter ASO. Under UCI rules, a stage race decides its standings, or general classification, based on the total elapsed time of riders across every stage. Within a given stage, all riders within a single group are credited with the same time as long as there is a gap of not more than three meters from one rider to the next (more than that and the second rider counts as the start of a new group). So in a sprint finish, even though the back of the field is many seconds behind the winner, all riders get the same finishing time. 

The question is how to decide the overall leader when, after multiple stages, more than one rider has the same overall elapsed time. That’s not uncommon when races open with sprint stages, and for that reason it has often been popular to start a Grand Tour with a short prologue, or time trial, to space riders out even by a few seconds. Similarly, stage races like the Tour often award bonus seconds to the first three finishers on a stage.

But this year’s Tour has produced a rarity: even though stage 3 was the first sprint finish of the race, there are four riders who are tied for first on overall time, without any of them finishing in the top three on a stage: Pogačar, Carapaz, and Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quick Step) and Jonas Vingegaard (Visma-Lease a Bike).

In that situation, the general classification gets decided on what are called count backs. It’s pretty much identical to scoring in golf; the GC is ordered based on who has the lowest cumulative placing total through all the stages to that point. Or, as the rules say: “In the absence of a time trial or if the riders remain tied, then the positions in which they finished each stage will be added up.”

Here’s how that’s worked out so far this Tour:

Rider and placingStage 1 Stage 2Stage 3Cumulative
Richard Carapaz22101446
Tadej Pogačar4143856
Remco Evenepoel8124060
Jonas Vingegaard16136897

It was that understanding that EF realized offered a rare opportunity for Carapaz to take yellow: in a sprint finish against three riders who are targeting a final yellow jersey in Paris and weren’t concerned about sprint-stage placings, if he could finish far-enough ahead, he’d be the new leader. It was no sure thing; entering the day Carapaz’s cumulative total was 32, meaning he had to finish at least three spots ahead of Vingegaard, 12 in front of Evenepoel, and better than 14 clear of Pogačar to take yellow. And that’s exactly what happened as he drafted in at the back of the select group of sprinters to vault from fourth to the race lead, while the uninterested trio of overall contenders crossed in a group behind.

With stage 4’s foray into the high mountains, it’s possible that either gaps will develop between these four or that one or more of them will take time bonuses at the finish to separate themselves from the others. But if a breakaway takes up the first three spots, and the quartet stays together, the yellow jersey may yet change hands again depending on how big the group is at the line and where each rider finishes in relation to the others. 

What if, somehow, the impossible happened and two riders came to the finish on the final stage perfectly tied on overall time, AND the count backs ended up exactly equal? The ASO has an answer for that: “…as a last resort, their finishing position on the final stage will be taken into account.” It’s a long way yet to the finish and, since time trials are timed down to 1/100th of a second this scenario will never come to pass. But it’s nice to know that officials are prepared even so.

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