Watch cyclocross racing long enough, and you'll hear references to the "80% rule" - but the letter of the rule, and its application, isn't always obvious or easy to understand. The 80% rule is intended to protect racing integrity, by removing slower riders from the race before they are lapped so they don't interfere with the race leader. Let's take a look at the details of the 80% rule and how it can affect racing outcomes in cyclocross.
What is the 80% rule?
The 80% rule states (paraphrasing) that riders who are more than 80% of a lap behind the leader can be removed from the race, unless it's the last lap. The intent (which isn't always possible) is that if a rider needs to be removed, it should happen before they are lapped.
An example: if leader is doing 7 minute laps and a rider is more than 5:30 behind, they would be at risk of being removed. The final lap of a race is excluded, because the slower rider isn't at risk of being lapped and affecting the outcome in that circumstance - as the race leader's day is over the next time they cross the finish line - even if their speed would ultimately result in them lapping the slower rider.
The application and visibily of the 80% rule seems to be increasing lately, perhaps due to the scorching lap times being ridden by elite athletes like Mathieu van der Poel and Fem van Empel who are simply so much faster than some of their peers. The more parity in a race, the less likely the 80% rule will be in effect, and vice versa.
Why does the 80% rule exist?
When slower riders are lapped by the leaders, they can affect the race outcome by getting in the way, preventing the leaders from riding their preferred line, causing them to lose momentum; or in extreme circumstances, causing a crash.
In 2009 at the World Cup in Igorre, Spain, race leader Zdeněk Štybar cleanly passes a lapped rider while on the attack, but his pursuer, Sven Nys, can't (or won't?) avoid the lapped traffic and ends up crashing as a result. Would Štybar have won anyway? Perhaps, but it would be better without the chance of the lapped rider affecting the outcome. Watch here:
Lucinda Brand is a current rider who has been vocal about the need for the officials to enforce the 80% rule, and posted this Tweet:
Hey @UCI_cycling when are you finally gonna solve this problem? Why did we have to wait that now lapped riders are influencing the results of the race? Unfortunately, yesterday it screwed up Ceylin’s race! 👇 1/4 pic.twitter.com/H1d6YyyHfu— Lucinda Brand (@lucinda_brand) January 2, 2022
In this example, Brand (race leader, wearing the white jersey with rainbow bands) is able to cleanly pass the lapped riders, but Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (wearing red, white and blue Dutch national champion jersey) is not; Alvarado is held up by the rider wearing the USA jersey. The USA rider seems aware of Brand and moves to the side, but doesn't seem to realize that Alvarado is close behind. The rider with the red bike and jersey is also being lapped by both Brand and Alvarado, but seems more aware of the race leaders coming through and moves far outside the racing line to accomodate them.
Because TV cameras focus on the riders in the lead and their pursuers, we don't often see the riders at the very back of the field getting TV time... they are typically removed off camera, so it isn't obvious that they are no longer on course.
Full text of the 80% rule
You can get a copy of the USA Cycling rulebook here. The portion relevant to cyclocross and the 80% rule is on page 93 in the current version:
4H1. All riders shall finish on the same lap as the leader, and shall be placed according to the number of laps behind the race leader, and then on their order of finish. Any rider who leaves the race without being pulled by an official shall be listed as DNF in the results. Before the start of the race, it shall be announced how lapped riders will be managed in the race. One of the following methods, chosen by the Race Director in consultation with the Chief Referee, shall be announced and clearly explained to the riders prior to the start of the race. In choosing the method, the Race Director and Chief Referee should consider appropriate and relevant event specific details, such as the event schedule, timing and results services available, the number of participants, the category of a specific event, or the number of starts in a particular wave of starts.
(b) Lapped and Withdraw. [The intent is to remove lapped riders on the same lap they are caught by one or more of the race leaders.] Riders who have been lapped shall continue riding to a designated location and withdraw, under the control of the officials.
But I see lapped riders on TV races all the time...
That is true! The 80% rule isn't always enforced evenly and can vary depending on the venue, series, and decisions of the officials on race day. So it's possible that you'll see riders being lapped by the leaders and still continuing on course.
You can easily imagine that the application of the 80% rule is imperfect - the trailing rider might not be slow enough for the 80% rule to be implemented during most of the race - only to have a poor lap, crash, or mechanical problem the next time around, which results in them being lapped after all due to one much slower-than-average lap.
You may have seen this video clip where MVDP runs into Felipe Nystrom. Don't worry, both riders were friendly and apologetic afterward - but it does illustrate the challenges that can arise when lapped riders remain on course. Nystrom is right in the line van der Poel wants to use; to avoid him, van der Poel would have needed to brake or possibly stop and put a foot down.
Is this is a DNF? (did not finish)
When a rider is "pulled" from the field before crossing the finish line due to the 80% rule, that's different from a DNF (did not finish). Riders removed from the field due to the 80% rule still figure in the scoring and timing of the race, while a rider who abandons entirely does not.
For example, in the 2024 Zonhoven World Cup, Lucinda Brand suffered a terrible crash while in the race lead. She exited the course and abandoned the race and did not finish, the official results show a "DNF" in this circumstance.
In that same race, Prisca Jaquet was the last official finisher. Although she was lapped, she is still listed as an official finisher and receives points based on the outcome.
Pros and cons of the 80% rule
The key pros of the 80% rule are:
- Maintaining race integrity - much slower riders who are not competitive don't affect the outcome for the leaders.
- Relieves riders who are at risk of being lapped from having to focus on traffic coming up from behind.
- In local events which run multiple categories back-to-back throughout the day, pulling much slower riders frees up the course and concludes the wave sooner, so that the next wave can start on time.
The key cons of the 80% rule are:
- Demoralizing new riders - especially beginners - who may have much slower times than the leaders in their categories, occasionally resulting in the new rider completing only a small portion of the race before being pulled. As a result, the 80% rule is often ignored in these categories.
- In races where multiple waves of riders in different categories are on course at the same time, even fast riders, who would otherwise be competitive, can be pulled from the course because the wave leader is going so much faster. This is especially problematic at races with very large fields. Cyclocross Magzine covers this issue in-depth here.
- Can be difficult for officials to track and implement, so the Race Director and Chief Official may decide together that lapped riders may remain on course in lieu of enforcing the 80% rule. Local races that are minimally staffed, for example, may not have enough officials to implement the 80% rule as written, even if they wanted to.
Does the 80% rule apply to my category?
Short answer? in UCI sanctioned events (World championship, national championship, Superprestige, Exact Cross, etc.) expect enforcement, at least in part, of the 80% rule; in non-UCI events, the Race Director and Chief Official decide, so ask for clarification if needed.
Whether or not you'll encounter the 80% rule depends on your skill and ability level, and the race category you've chosen to enter. At the local level, it's very unlikely that the 80% rule will be applied - especially in beginner and first-timer categories. These races are more casual and inclusivity and particiation is valued - getting "pulled" is demoralizing for new riders, so every effort is generally made to not pull riders, and ensure that they receive a finishing time and appear on the official results - even if they are lapped. You should show up and participate, even if it's likely that you'll be lapped.
When money, prizes, or titles are on the line, however - state or national championship events, UCI C1 or C2 events, and so on, it's much more likely that the 80% rule will be applied. To the letter of the rules, the officials are specifically supposed to state whether or not riders will be pulled during the race instructions pre-start. That's more likely to happen at higher profile events.