Crashes in bike races are inevitable.
That doesn’t mean the aftermath doesn’t hurt just as bad.
Wednesday’s stage 5 of the Giro d’Italia paid a costly toll. Two of the top GC riders with Mikel Landa and Pavel Sivakov are out of the Giro d’Italia, and a few more are hobbled, including American star Joe Dombrowski.
The culprits never change. A touch of wheels, or an ill-placed traffic island. If you put nearly 200 grown men on bicycles, crashes will happen regardless if the roadway is four-feet wide or 40.
— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamEmiratesUAE) May 12, 2021
There’s something different happening these days, and Wednesday’s crash could be a wake-up call.
Is it time for race organizers to change course design?
Many inside the sport believe it is.
Racing bicycles is a 19th century endeavor, yet it’s an old sport that is contested on public roadways of the 21st century.
And the road network in modern Europe in 2021 is designed to slow down vehicle traffic, not provide the backdrop for world-class athletes hurtling themselves at top speed toward a finish line.
What happened Wednesday to Landa and Dombrowski, who appeared to go down in a crash provoked by a traffic island, is just the latest chapter in a long-running tale that never seems to change.
No matter how much race organizers try to make urban finishes safe, there will be crashes.
Why? Because modern roads in any European city center are going to be packed with an ever-expanding array of traffic furniture designed to slow down cars and trucks.
So the question begs: is it time for race organizers to change cycling’s stadium?
For the health of the peloton, perhaps it is.
Everyone loves seeing a race finish in front of a that 13th century cathedral, or seeing a historic castle or fortress as a backdrop. Part of the allure and charm of professional bike racing is simply it’s setting. No sport has a stadium as spectacular as professional cycling.
— La Flamme Rouge (@laflammerouge16) May 12, 2021
Yet many of those finales set among Europe’s UNESCO World Heritage sites and other post-card perfect settings are rarely as safe as they need or should be.
In today’s Europe, there are simply too many traffic islands, cobblestones, tram tracks, roundabouts, speed bumps, crosswalks, bridges, tunnels, ramps, parking bollards, street signs, turning lanes and other obstacles to create a safe race.
What protects a grandma walking across a crosswalk in a picturesque French village more often than not creates absolutely treacherous racing conditions.
So what to do?
The answer shouldn’t be too difficult. First, cycling’s stakeholders must assure that cycling’s arena is safe for its gladiators. If it’s not, then it’s time to change the arena. Simple as that.
Does that mean putting a finish line on the outskirts of town in front of a Carrefour parking lot? Well, on sprint stages especially, maybe so.
Also read: Mikel Landa out and Pavel Sivakov banged up
Hilltop finales, selective stages, and pure mountain stages naturally create gaps in the peloton, and thus reduce the danger of crashing.
It’s during a bunch sprint on a flat stage, when most of the peloton is barreling shoulder-to-shoulder toward the finish line at 60kph, that there could be room to rethink how and where the finish line should be.
There’s nothing wrong with having a stage swoop through a historic downtown, but don’t design the final kilometers of a sprint stage finishing in an urban jungle littered with tight corners, jumbled streets, and a dizzying array of obstacles.
Nothing would be lost by bringing the high-speed sprint stage finales out of Europe’s tangle of narrow and dangerous streets, and onto wider and safer roads.
What’s more important? Some gratuitous beauty shots for the TV cameras? Or the safety of the world’s best cyclists?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not as simple as it should be.
Alessandro De Marchi doing it his way
Tuesday’s wet and cold stage saw two of cycling’s consummate pros get just rewards.
First, it was Joe Dombrowski with an overdue and well-deserved stage victory (and the King of the Mountains jersey).
And taking pink behind him Tuesday was Italian journeyman Alessandro De Marchi.
In many ways, De Marchi and Dombrowski are quite similar. Both are consummate professionals, both seemed to have taken less out of the sport for the work and sacrifice they’ve put in. De Marchi won five times in his career, and is one of those riders who are not quite pure climbers and not quite GC material.
For a rider in the middle, De Marchi came out on top Tuesday, and proudly wore the maglia rosa in Wednesday’s crash-marred stage.
“With my way of racing, many attacks haven’t paid off in the past but I don’t think that I have made mistakes in the eleven years of my career,” De Marchi said. “At the end of the day, it’s important to never give up.”
It’s rare for a rider like De Marchi to get within spitting distance of the race lead. Following a strong ride in Saturday’s opening time trial, he saw the slenderest of openers, and put it full to the test Tuesday when he rode into a big breakaway group across the cold and rain-soaked hills.
“[Monday] night, I looked at the GC and saw that I was still 12th overall. I joked with my sports director Claudio Cozzi that I would try to take the jersey and look what happened,” De Marchi said. “When I crossed the line, I still wasn’t sure if I had made it but then I saw my team coming to me smiling and I realized what had happened.”
According to race organizers, De Marchi is the 135th Italian to wear the maglia rosa since 1931, but only the fifth from his region, Friuli, after Giordano Cottur (14 stages between 1946 and 1949), Oreste Conte (1 stage in 1950), Guido de Santi (3 stages in 1953) and Franco Pellizotti (4 stages in 2008).
“The maglia rosa is what all kids dream of. I never really thought I’d get it as I was never anywhere near close to it before,” he said. “It’s an incredible feeling. I have been waiting 10 years for this. To wear the pink jersey is the dream of every cyclist, especially the Italian riders.”
De Marchi could carry it into the weekend. Not a bad return on his sweat investment.
All this month, the Giro d’Italia is the star
The Giro d’Italia clicked into gear this weekend with trademark panache.
The beloved and sometimes blighted “corsa rosa” evokes a passion no other race can match.
The chaos, color and cacophony of the Giro simply charms everyone and everything in its path.
Of cycling’s three grand tours, it’s the one that “fits” best. The Tour de France is too big, and the Vuelta a España sometimes seems a tad under-whelming. The Giro fits just right.
The Tour is all business, and is so important among today’s riders, teams, fans and media that a lot of the fun and joy of racing has been sucked out of the Tour. It’s stress from start to finish for everyone every July.
If Tour de France is all business, the Vuelta misses just a touch of gravitas. Not to say that the Vuelta isn’t as exciting or as gripping of the “big three,” but it sometimes seems like another second-tier race with a first-tier start list.
In contrast, the Giro still feels “big” without being overwhelming. It’s prestigious without being self-important. The action is as intense as any race, but it’s the before and after at the Giro that set the race apart.
There’s an unbridled exuberance and passion in the Giro unmatched in grand tour racing.
In many ways, the Giro is also a much harder race than the Tour, at least in terms of physical and geographical challenge.
The climbs are longer, steeper and harder in Italy, the weather more extreme, and the altitude comes packed into mind-bending bands of suffering. The Tour is harder simply because every rider is at their absolute peak just to make the team selection.
Yet as grueling as the Giro is, the entire three weeks remains more intimate and human. Anyone attending the Giro immediately feels at home at the race, as if your Italian neighbor asked you over for a weekend meal.
All this month, the Giro is the star.
Social media we liked …
— Israel Start-Up Nation / Israel Cycling Academy (@TeamIsraelSUN) May 12, 2021
— Giro d'Italia (@giroditalia) May 12, 2021