So, let me give you my 2 cents on the "free lap rule" which I believe is one of the most misunderstood and even abused rule (by some) in the book. And, this is NOT just for the College kids benefit..it's for yours. Here is what the rulebook says about the "free lap rule":
3D5. Free Lap Rule. Riders shall normally cover the distance of the race regardless of mishaps and must make up any distance lost on their own ability unless a free lap is granted for mishaps. A free lap may be granted for each mishap subject to the following rules unless the official race announcement states that no free laps will be allowed. On courses shorter than 1 km (.6 mile), two free laps shall be allowed for a given mishap.
(a) Bicycle inspection and repairs must be made in an official repair pit. If announced in advance by the Chief Referee, riders are permitted to cut the course to get to a pit, but only while the free lap rule is in effect. Either an official following vehicle shall transport riders to a single repair pit, normally near the start/finish line, or riders must proceed to a repair pit in accordance with Rule 3D2. If no following vehicle is used, there should be repair pits at intervals of 1 km around the course.
(b) There must be a referee stationed in each repair pit to determine if the mishap was a legitimate one and if the rider is entitled to a free lap. The referee must keep track of all riders who are granted free laps and submit a written report to the Chief Referee at the end of the race.
(c) A rider who is granted a free lap must return to the race in the position held at the time of the mishap. A rider who was in a group shall return at the rear of the same group the next time around. A rider returning to the race after a free lap shall be ineligible for sprint prizes for one lap thereafter.
(d) A rider granted a free lap must re-enter the race before the final 8km of the race; after that point in the race a rider in the pit is losing ground on the field.
Before I discuss this rule, I have to give you the definition (from USA Cycling) of the word "mishap" which you see underlined several times above. According to USA Cycling, a mishap is:
1A15. A mishap is a crash or a mechanical accident (tire puncture or other failure of an essential component). However, a puncture caused by the tire coming off due to inadequate gluing is not a mechanical accident, nor is a malfunction due to miss-assembly or insufficient tightening of any component. A recognized mishap is a stoppage that meets the above conditions. An unrecognized mishap is a stoppage where the above conditions are not met.
A broken toe strap or cleat is a mishap. A worn or misadjusted cleat or toe strap is not a mishap. If more than one toe strap is used on a pedal, breakage of one is considered a mishap. Any mishap not immediately inspected by an official is unrecognized.
Ok, so you're asking: "how's this affect me?". Well, if you race in Criteriums that have a wheel pit area (and an official) you'll have a free lap rule in affect. Therefore, if you're smart, you'll want to put an extra set of wheels in the pit area in case you flat. If you do flat, which is the most common use of the pit area, either ride in a forward direction or dismount and walk/run backwards to the pit area. Do NOT ride backwards on the course. If you create a dangerous situation in doing so, you will be DQ'd. Yes, you can cut the course to get back to the pit area in some situations. But, regardless of where you are on the course..the officials will see you if you have a mishap..trust me. We have radios and EVERYTHING is seen and communicated. When you enter the pit area the pit official will assess your mishap to determine whether you get a free lap. You just don't show up, pop a new wheel on and go. Once your tire/wheel is changed (by you..remember the officials aren't mechanics), and the official grants you a "free lap", the official will then insert you back into the race in the position you held prior to your mishap. Yes, the officials know where you were in the race..they know where EVERYONE is on every lap of the race. Trust me on that. For you tubular tire guys/gals, if you show up to the pit area with a flat due to your poor gluing job..you will NOT be granted a "free lap" (at least not by me). You can, however, change your wheel and chase once your wheel is changed.
One last thing...PLEASE make sure your bike is in "good mechanical" condition prior to any race. That's for your safety and the safety of others. Just this weekend a water bottle came flying off a bike in a race- in its bottle cage. Nothing happened to any of the riders- luckily. My advice is to have your bike checked by your local bike shop BEFORE the race. And, be careful when transporting your bike to the race that you don't bang anything (like a derailer) out of adjustment. (Been there done that). Required mechanical adjustments don't constitute a "free lap" during a race.
In fact, what I would do is wash/clean your bike at home before the race season starts. Get rid of all that Winter dirt, salt, grime, etc. Inspect your bike for cracks, scratches, loose parts, etc. Then, take it to your LBS for an adjustment and further inspection. While it's there, have the mechanic clean/lube your chain if you haven't already done it. (Your LBS mechanic will appreciate working on a clean bike.) Ride on your bike for a day or two BEFORE your race to ensure it shifts smoothly etc. and the tires are seated properly (if you put new tires on). Race day is NOT the time to realize your bike is not shifting right or to discover a pinch flat or unglued tubuler tire.
Good luck this racing season. If you have any questions re: the rules, email me. I don't have all the answers but I am in contact (weekly) with folks that will have the answer. Be safe and HAVE FUN! Coach Rob