Has the ultimate badass sport gone soft?
That’s the burning question as the Giro d’Italia saw the guts ripped out of its “queen stage” Monday due to inclement weather.
Egan Bernal and the rest of the Giro peloton woke up Monday facing a decisive, four-climb monster of a stage across the heart of the Dolomites under daunting conditions. The Giro’s weather gods served up cold, rain and possible snow on the upper reaches on a trio of cycling’s most iconic climbs.
In what’s become an ever increasing scenario, riders pressed the case that race conditions would be too dangerous, especially coming up and over the 2000-meter-plus trio of summits stacked up at Fedaia, Pordoi and Giau.
Also read: Giro peloton battered and bruised
Behind-the-scenes negotiations led to what many in the peloton believed was the right call. Fedaia and Passo Pordoi, the latter being this year’s “Cima Coppi” as the Giro’s highest point at 2231m, were eliminated from the stage.
The Giro’s “queen stage” was defanged, and the decision begs the question: has cycling gone soft?
Professional cycling is unique in that its stadium is the open roads of Europe. Part of the sport’s allure is the suffering that is intrinsic to the man vs. nature tug-of-war, be it gusting winds, inhuman climbs, or suffocating heat.
Or, as is so often the case at the Giro, winter-like weather on the upper reaches of some of Europe’s highest roads.
Gallery: The Giro’s climbing weekend
Every May sees a replay of the same drama. In fact, the horrendous weather is part of the Giro’s brand and identity.
This is 2021, not 1988, the year that Andy Hampsten raced over the snowbound Passo di Gavia en route to winning the maglia rosa that year. Some consider that stage one of the most dramatic in cycling history.
What is sure is that cycling today will never see a repeat of the conditions that Hampsten and others raced in 35 years ago.
And Monday’s decision to reroute the stage proved it.
— High Cycling (@highcycling_) April 20, 2021
Cycling in 2021 is very different in 1988. It’s more professional, more universal, and, in many ways, more humane. Today, riders and many of cycling’s fans simply will not stand for anything that crosses the bounds of the acceptable.
Remember the Giro’s idea a few years ago of having a prize for the fastest descender on pre-selected descents across the race? That didn’t even last a day before fans and riders cried foul, insisting that the competition would induce riders to take unnecessary risks.
In many ways, professional cycling in 2021 is at a similar crossroads of what Formula 1 auto racing faced decades ago. Following a string of high-profile fatalities, capped by the death of superstar Ayrton Senna in 1994, the sport fully embraced the mandate to make a very dangerous sport as safe as possible.
New safety measures were integrated into the design of the chassis, race courses, and every part of the competition. As a result, the number fatalities dropped dramatically.
Last summer’s horrific crash involving Fabio Jakobsen in the opening stage of the Tour de Pologne marked a similar before-and-after moment for professional cycling.
That horrible crash prompted the sport’s key stakeholders to finally step up and address the safety inadequacies of professional bike racing. Over the winter and coming into this season, the sport unveiled a series of safety measures designed to diminish the risks in an inherently risky sport.
Though the ban on the “super tuck” and tossing away trash and water bottles has served as somewhat of a distraction, other less controversial steps are being introduced that should see safer racing conditions.
This Giro, however, only reconfirmed how hard it can be to reduce all risks in the unique, sometimes chaotic business of racing on open roads from point-to-point across Europe.
A high-profile crash that took out Joe Dombrowski and pre-race favorite Mikel Landa in the first week reminded everyone the need to keep pushing for safer conditions, yet a high-speed pileup Sunday in the first hour of racing on a narrow causeway also reconfirmed that crashes can happen anywhere.
Yet as the sport rightly pushes toward safer conditions for the athletes, there is an inherent conflict in that equation. Cycling is a dangerous sport, and everyone inside the peloton accepts that.
Does the sport risk losing part of its allure in its bid to improve safety? That is a tradeoff the sport is facing on a daily basis.
The internal debate in the sport right now is how to best reduce risk, yet strike the right balance between enhanced safety measures without taking away from the allure of the sport.
Passo Giau 🏔️@Eganbernal on the attack 🙌
Cima Coppi 👑
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) May 24, 2021
The decision not to race Monday’s entire stage is a direct outcome of cycling’s latest quandary.
As it turned out, conditions Monday were not nearly as bad as they could have been. Though TV images were not available because it was too dangerous to fly helicopters and the transmitter airplane above the jabbed Dolomites, rain eased as the stage progressed.
Of course, there was no way of predicting this. When the debate started Monday morning, it was pouring rain on the high summits, with temperatures in the low to mid-40s. It could have easily turned to snow.
Cycling will never be free of danger, but the sport is moving in the right direction to reduce those risks.
Riders also know they will crash sooner or later. What they don’t want is to crash due to unsafe racing conditions.
Was Monday’s decision to re-route the stage the correct one? Some won’t agree that it was. Was the outcome greatly altered? Egan Bernal winning the stage and tightening his grip on the pink jersey was what everyone expected.
What is very likely is that as cycling moves into a new century, the images that made the sport so iconic in the last century are just that — part of the history books.