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As of 2005, riders who crash in the final 3km of most stages are awarded the time of the group they were riding with prior to hitting the deck. The rule is laid out in Article 20 of the Tour de France rulebook.
Article 20: In the event that a rider or riders suffer a fall, puncture or mechanical incident in the last 3 kilometers and such an incident is duly recognized, 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.
They are attributed this ranking only upon crossing the finish line. If after a fall, it is impossible for a rider to cross the finish line, he is given the ranking of last in the stage and credited with the time of the rider or riders he was with at the time of the incident. For exceptional cases, the decision taken by the stewards committee is final.
This measure does not apply to finishes of the 2nd stage, which is a team time trial and of the 20th stage which is an individual time trial; summit finishes of the 4th, 8th, 12th, 14th, 18th and 19th stages.
The consequence is that Saturday’s first stage saw Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez, both of whom crashed about 8km out, lose significant time to every other major GC threat.
Andy Schleck, Bradley Wiggins and Ivan Basso all rolled across the line with the Contador-Sanchez group, but did so only because they were delayed by a crash at 2km to go. Prior to that crash, they had been in the front group, and therefore were awarded the same time as that group, just six seconds down.
The times first published by the ASO (and here on VeloNews.com) reflected the precise times picked up the electronic transponder attached to each rider’s bike. The race commissaires then had to go back and figure out which riders were involved in each crash, and re-assign times accordingly. They might have a long night ahead of them.
There was some initial confusion as to whether the 3km rule would apply to Saturday’s stage 1, since the finish was capped with a small climb. The rule does not apply to stages where late-race crashes are likely a rider’s own fault: true mountain stages, with long climbs and riders streaming in one-by-one, and time trials. Saturday’s stage was neither, and thus was rightly run with the 3km rule in effect.