Are Tour de France sprints getting more dangerous?

There is talk in the bunch that stage finishes are getting more dangerous, so we look at whether this is the case at the Tour de France

It was the talking point at the end of stage three of the Tour de France, which ended in a photo finish between Mark Cavendish and André Greipel.

When Peter Sagan, whose post-race attitude to media tends to be one of slinking around and looking for any possible distraction, becomes sincere you know he probably means it.

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“There are a lot of GC riders who want to do well overall but on the flat stages we want to fight for the sprint, not ride with the GC guys,” Sagan said. “That’s very dangerous.

“The flat stages are for the sprinters, why can’t the GC riders be safe behind? I don’t understand why they don’t do that. It’d be safer for everyone.”

Many riders have agreed with him. Sagan – holder of the yellow and rainbow jerseys – is perhaps now the closest thing to a patron and spokesperson for the 2016 Tour peloton, even if he sometimes struggles to express himself in English.

But does he have a point? Are Tour de France sprints really getting too dangerous?

Watch: Highlights from stage three of the 2016 Tour de France

For anyone who can remember Djamolidine Abdoujaparov somersaulting his way along the Champs-Elysées in 1991, or Laurent Jalabert experimenting with what happens when you ride into a gendarme at 40mph, the answer is probably no.

Thanks to hard-shell helmets and barriered finishes, today’s sprint finish crashes, when they do happen, tend to be less serious. Not that it makes it any better for Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) or Michael Morkov (Katusha), who crashed in the breakneck finale of stage one.

The argument here is that the sprint finales ‘feel’ more dangerous. Riders sense that a big crash is waiting to happen.

After winning his second stage of this year’s race, Cavendish argued that GC riders and their domestiques are actively seeking to exploit splits in the bunch inside the final kilometres of flat stages rather than simply avoid them.

He was not saying that riders are actively seeking to cause crashes, but that the “get your GC rider up front at all costs” mentality doesn’t always sit well with safety or common sense.

He also argued that the number of sprinters jostling for position is now greater. There is greater incentive, both financial (prize money) and professional (WorldTour points), and more riders want a slice of that pie.

It’s a slightly elitist view from a 28-time stage winner but it’s hard to argue with it when you consider that on stage three riders like Pierre Rolland had a GC leadout and Cofidis were trying to lead out Christophe Laporte.

With all respect to Rolland, who came eighth overall in the Tour in 2012, and Laporte, whose best Tour result was seventh in the stage 15 sprint last year, you can see Cavendish’s point.

Part of the problem is that there is no dominant sprinter in 2016. Cavendish and Marcel Kittel (Etixx-Quick Step) may be the fastest but now most teams have their own competitor: Direct Energie (Bryan Coquard), Cofidis (Laporte), Katusha (Alexander Kristoff), Giant-Alpecin (John Degenkolb), Orica-BikeExchange (Michael Matthews), Lotto-Soudal (Greipel), LottoNL-Jumbo (Dylan Groenewegen), Trek-Segafredo (Edward Theuns) and Tinkoff (Sagan).

It’s not new, but the days of HTC Highroad towing Cavendish to the finish like a caravan doing 100mph on a narrow French country road are long gone.

Sprints today resemble a 10 lane drag race out of a French motorway toll booth and on both occasions, Cavendish has had to really scrap for his wins.

Add to that every team with a wannabe GC contender and, on day three of the Tour, you have 22 teams all with something to fight hard for.

The only three possible exceptions are Lampre-Merida (they’re looking after Louis Meintjes), Fortuneo-Vital Concept (they’re looking after Dan McLay) and IAM Cycling (they’re looking for anything they can get).

Should the UCI look to extend the three kilometre rule to five or six kilometres? Should organisers tone down the sort of fast, technical and demanding finishes that have spiced up the opening stages of the past few Tours?

Nobody quite yet knows the answer to that, but there’s a good chance this won’t be the last time we hear of sprint stage safety in this year’s Tour de France.