A controversial rule change for the 64.5km team time trial is the talk of the Tour de France.In the absence of anything likely to issue a first jolt to the general classification on stages one and two, gossip on the Tour roadshow this week has been mostly of a forward-looking nature. After the paranoia about the pav, on Tuesday it was the turn of tomorrow's team time trial to exercise many hearts and minds. More precisely, it was a controversial rule change which was unveiled at the Tour presentation in October least year, but whose full implications didn't become clear until much later. It has been widely reported that the team which finishes last on tomorrow's 64.5km route between Cambrai and Arras can lose a maximum of three minutes, regardless of their actual deficit from the winners. Less well documented is that ALL finishing splits could be attributed according to a predefined sliding scale of time (see bottom of page). Accordingly, should the team who finishes second tomorrow take 45 seconds more than the winner, their classification on the stage will reflect a maximum time gap of 20 seconds. The third team can only lose 40 seconds, the fourth 50 seconds, and so it continues in irregular increments until the three-minute limit. The Socit du Tour de France's competitions director of sport, Jean-Franois Pescheux defended the rule in the face of mounting criticism in Waterloo this morning: "We never know what's going to happen in the team time trial," said Pescheux. "Imagine, for instance, that a team is completely decimated and the leader loses six, seven or even 10 minutes. That would be the end of his race. Obviously the teams who are well suited to this discipline aren't going to like the rule, while those which don't have strong rouleurs will welcome it. You can't please all of the people, all of the time." Asked whether some teams may happily settle for a three-minute loss - and therefore not stretch themselves to contain their deficit - Pescheux was sceptical: "There is still a time limit (125% of the winning time), outside of which teams will be eliminated," he said. "Furthermore, when teams set off they won't necessarily know the others' results." Amongst the men whose essential apparatus tomorrow will include a rule book and a calculator - the directeur sportifs - Pescheux's explanation has both sympathisers and critics. "I don't see any reason to afford the climbers any special protection," says T-Mobile's Walter Godefroot, torn between the former and latter category. "However, the Tour de France organisers explained the rule to all of the directeurs at a meeting in the March. No one complained then, so I guess we don't have the right to complain now." Fassa Bortolo boss Giancarlo Ferretti is never afraid of voicing strong opinions. This is never more true than when innovation tips over the threshold of the gratuitously new-fangled. A staunch opponent of the UCI Pro Tour, Ferretti, surprisingly, backs the team time trial change. "I think that it's a good move, because the winner of the Tour should be an individual, not a team," Ferretti affirmed this morning. "The staggered time gaps don't change our strategy. Neither, I hope, will they change how other teams approach it. To give any less than 100% would be a crime against the team sponsors, the event and the spirit of the competition." Saeco chief Giuseppe Martinelli has more reasons than many - and certainly Ferretti - to welcome the overhaul. Last year Saeco flopped disastrously after Gilberto Simoni predicted that the Tour would see "the best Saeco of all time" in a 52.2km time trial to Saint Dizier. He was wrong to the tune of over three minutes. "The Tour should be even handed with the specialist climbers and the time triallists. The new rule encourages that," Martinelli told procycling in Waterloo on Tuesday. "In the past a climber could lose over three minutes just because someone in their team is having a bad day. That happened to us last year. It's ludicrous. This year we're a being more prudent. Being so explicit about our ambitions didn't help either. It meant that the disappointment of the result hurt us even more. "In principal, the idea of the team time trial is a good one," Martinelli continued. "But if you are going to have one, make it over 30 kilometres with real time gaps. It's a very stressful day for us, the managers, and the mechanics. A puncture to one rider is enough to create panic." "We've known about it since the presentation of the Tour route last October, so there can be no complaint now," reflected Liberty Seguros directeur sportif Manolo Saiz, widely regarded as the master of all tacticians in the team time trial discipline. "The rules are the same for everyone, and it effectively means that no team leader is condemned to losing several minutes even before they enter the Tour. It's good for the Tour as a spectacle, therefore it's good for cycling. "It doesn't change our strategy because we're riding for the victory anyway," Saiz continued. "It's the weaker teams who could abuse the system by allowing themselves to lose six minutes. Our key man? This event is about all nine riders and in equal measure."