Culture

Commentary: Why I still love a frivolous, final-stage parade to wrap a grand tour

Sunday's time trial finale at the Giro d'Italia was exciting, but I would have preferred seeing Peter Sagan racing for the sprint win.

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OK, so we’ve had two grand tours in a row decided by final time trials. Both the 2020 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia came down to nail-biting conclusions, with the leader’s jerseys changing shoulders at the last possible moment. Fans, media, and organizers couldn’t ask for a better finish, right?

Of course, there was one big difference between the Giro and Tour in 2020.

While both ended with exclamation marks, the Tour enjoyed the added glamour, prestige, tradition, and sometimes goofiness that comes with the final sprint down the Champs-Élysées. The Giro? Meh. Except for a few very happy Ineos Grenadiers riders and staffers, everyone else just went to the nearest gelateria and packed it in.

What did the Giro gain by scheduling a closing, final-day time trial? Sure, the entire race came down to the last stage and the very final pedal strokes of more than 85 hours and 3,500km of racing. Gripping stuff, no doubt. What did the Giro lose? I would argue quite a bit.

What’s missing is all the silliness, celebration, and the rare chance to reflect on three grueling weeks before one final sprint. Peter Sagan dragged himself across the hardest climbs of Italia for a week. Didn’t he and Arnaud Démare deserve one more chance at victory? Wouldn’t Tao Geohegan Hart have loved to have had at least a few hours on the bike to savor the maglia rosa, sip a glass of “prosecco,” and pose for photos with teammates, sport directors, and friends and rivals alike? You know they would.

For me, there couldn’t be a more boring, less enthralling way to conclude something as dynamic, unpredictable, and beautiful as a grand tour than with a time trial.

Yes, this year we saw two exceptions to the rule that time trials are generally about as exciting to watch as paint drying. The closing time trials at the Giro and Tour delivered some of cycling’s most memorable and standout moments in years. And, oh yeah, there was that one time trial way back in 1989. But most time trials — and that includes both at the Giro and Tour this year — are typically only interesting for a few guys at the top of the GC, and a few more racing for the win, who are usually near the bottom of the GC.

For everyone else in between, a final-day time trial means almost nothing, especially one that’s only 15km long.

Don’t get me wrong. It was fantastic that the Giro came down to such a thrilling and unexpected crescendo. In cycling’s 100-year-plus history, a grand tour has never been tied on real time going into the final stage. Yet it would have had the very same outcome had the time trial been contested on Saturday, with the added the thrill of seeing Sagan versus Démare go head-to-head in front of Milano’s duomo the next day.

I can understand why RCS Sport has done away with the final-day parade at the Giro. First off, TV ratings are highest on the weekend, so it’s logical that race organizers would want their premier, race-deciding stages contested over the weekend in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

And it’s true the Giro has not built up the tradition of a final-day sprint and parade like the Tour de France has ever since ASO moved the final stage to the Champs-Élysées in 1975. Milano is no Paris, and from what we’ve heard, the local residents are none too happy with the road closures that come with a long Giro sprint stage.

Perhaps I am part of the minority in my preference for something other than a time trial finale. Last week in a poll on my Twitter account, I asked fans their preference on how to conclude a grand tour; a time trial, a mountaintop finish, or a closing day parade/sprint. More than half preferred a time trial.

I can understand how the tidiness and tension of having a race decided on the final day seems appealing. What better than a race of truth to decide cycling’s most grueling races?

Call me old-school, but every day of a grand tour doesn’t have to play out like a video game or some movie script that closes with a cliff-hanger. I like the sense of arrival, the celebration, and mystique that comes at the end of nearly a month on the road.

More than anything, the closing-day parades are for the riders, the sport directors, and the backroom staffers. For the first time in weeks and even months, they can finally relax.

The intensity and focus required to race for three weeks deserves some payback for the riders and everyone else inside the race caravan. And that reward is having one day to communally reflect, savor, celebrate and appreciate what they’ve endured for nearly one month of racing shoulder to shoulder. That day is the closing stage of a grand tour.

There’s something magical about arriving in Paris and racing down the Champs-Élysées to conclude the Tour de France. Every pro who’s done it says it’s one of the highlights of their career.

The Giro organization doesn’t see it that way, but let’s hope that the Tour never does away with its final romp down Europe’s most glamorous boulevard. It’s among sport’s most spectacular stadiums.