Giro d'Italia

Giro d’Italia roundtable: Did the peloton do the right thing to protest Friday’s stage?

The Giro d'Italia descended into chaos on stage 19, and there were no easy answers as riders stood their ground.

The Giro d’Italia descended into chaos Friday when riders refused to race the full distance of 19th stage under rain. The polemica continues to churn, and incriminations are coming from all sides.

Were riders correct, or were they going soft? Did the race organizers react too angrily, or did RCS Sport have a right to insist that the stage should have been contested?  And did riders overstep their bounds by trying to alter the stage? Races have been held under rain and cold for decades, so what made Friday any different?

There are many questions and no right answers. So let’s roundtable — did the peloton do the right thing Friday?

This latest rider protest seems to have touched many nerves, so let’s start right there, was the peloton right or wrong to demand altering the stage?

Andrew Hood (@eurohoody): The riders made the right call. The old-school mentality of racing through anything simply doesn’t square with a grand tour being contested in the middle of a world pandemic. These are not normal times, and the race organization must accept the concerns of the riders. They’re the actors, and if the riders felt uncomfortable for what they cited as legitimate health concerns, the race organization should have shown the class to honor that.

James Startt: In my column yesterday on VeloNews, I said very clearly that I don’t think that the peloton was in the right here. We are in the last week of a grand tour and the race is very close. Every kilometer counts, and a long day in the rain adds to the challenge. In addition, as Alberto Contador said, bike races are not canceled simply due to rain as the riders are in no real danger. Lastly, I think it was a real slap in the face to race organizer Mauro Vegni. As he said, everybody knew about this long day since the Giro was announced and everyone knew that the weather could turn quickly in the final week. But it was only five minutes, perhaps 10 minutes, before the start that the riders announced their position. Perhaps there was sort of collective mental breakdown on the part of the peloton at the end of a long race with a lot of added stress because of COVID. But I think this is a very dangerous precedent to set.

Jim Cotton (@jim_c_1985): I think it was. As a stage destined for a break or bunch sprint, the race lost nothing by halving it in length. Had it been a mountain stage and a key climb was taken out, I’d say otherwise as it could impact the GC. Arguably, fresher legs Saturday should make for spicier racing in the final mountain stage. The shortening of stage 19 may however take something away from the road-warrior veterans such as Pello Bilbao and Jakob Fuglsang. These older guys tend to handle the harder days better than young whippersnappers like Jai Hindley or Tao Geoghegan Hart, and that may have played out on the road Saturday.

Many riders cited implications to their health — for example, their immune systems would have been weakened by a seven-hour effort in cold rain — so in the context of coronavirus, is that a reasonable concern?

Riders’ immune systems are on the brink after two weeks of hard racing in attritional weather. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Andrew: Of course it is. Even though the Giro is supposed to be protected inside the “race bubble,” we’ve already seen so many COVID cases that it’s natural that riders and staffers would be concerned about an all-day, unduly hard effort in the middle of a world pandemic. Everyone is at their wits’ end, and it’s been a very stressful three weeks. Riders have to travel home after the Giro, and no one wants to put their families and friends at risk. Maybe 100km less racing won’t make that much of a difference, but I can see their side of the story.

James: Perhaps. But once again, this is a very tight Giro d’Italia. We have a rider who took over the pink jersey two days ago, despite the fact that he lost well over two minutes to several direct rivals. The top-three riders in GC are separated by only 15 seconds. A long day in the rain will certainly add to the fatigue factor. And that is what the three-week grand tour is all about. That is what is so different about these races. Things happen in the third week that happen in no other race.

Jim: Absolutely. Pushing the body to the limit may well be a peril of the job for a WorldTour pro, but unnecessary risks are, well … unnecessary.

Some have suggested that riders were somehow shirking their duties as professional athletes by resisting racing the full distance, do you agree?

Andrew: After racing more than 3,000km and enduring the sometimes-insane transfers that are part of the Giro, in no way were the riders somehow slacking off on the job. Having a stage at 260km so late in the race was already extreme, and with the rain and cold, what kind of stage would it have produced? I can see how some are frustrated that the strike came so late because it did torpedo the plans of a few teams. It’s a stage-win opportunity lost or a missed chance to try to wear out an opponent ahead of Saturday’s battle. The stage was still contested, and there was still a winner. It’s not like the peloton refused to race at all.

Jim: I think there was a legitimate argument. At 260km, that is monument-distance, and after so many 200km-plus stages, it was just too much. I think the abnegation of responsibility comes more from the late decision to protest. Sure, teams only know they’re going to have long transfers when they’re allocated hotels at the start of the race, but they did know how long the stage was for one year in advance and could have thought about this earlier.

James: Yes, essentially I do. The race organizers have had their back up against the wall to get this race from Palermo to Milan. They were given the worst dates of the new calendar, in direct conflict with many of the classics. And coronavirus is on the rise again. And they already were forced to reroute today’s stage when new health measures in France prohibited a mass event like the Giro to race down their roads. I simply do not think that the weather conditions yesterday were enough to merit the stage being shortened.

A larger question about rider influence in the sport, does this episode underscore a shift of how riders are trying to take more control of their own collective destiny? Do riders need a stronger voice at the ‘table’ of cycling’s key stakeholders than what’s currently provided by the CPA?

Jim: A stronger voice is needed. Part of the furor Friday was because a decision wasn’t made when the possibility of shortening the stage wasn’t made when riders first made complaints on Thursday night. As a result, it was a literal final-hour decision to halve the stage. A stronger voice could have pushed through the move Thursday night and reduced such a palaver Friday morning.

Andrew: This is the latest example of riders assuming more control. They’re linking up via working groups on their smartphones, and bypassing the traditional power centers of the UCI, the CPA, and race organizers. There isn’t unanimity among the peloton, because it’s obvious some wanted to race the full stage Friday, but this reveals that the riders are more organized than ever, and it appears to be something they’re doing among themselves. There’s already a move afoot to try to reform the CPA, and perhaps even create a new group. This is the latest chapter in what’s going to be a big talking point going into 2021 and beyond. The riders want a stronger voice, and this is the clearest example of how this will play out.

James: There has been some talk that, with new CPA elections looming, the CPA wanted to make a show of force here. While I am not opposed to the riders having more say, it should not happen this way. There could well be a review panel of professional riders that study the race routes and lobby for changes when they deem something unreasonable, but not minutes before the start of a stage. Such moves just lend itself to a herd mentality. And a race organizer that has spent months putting together a race, bringing together towns, dozens of volunteers, and staff, cannot be put in a situation on a regular basis where everything is turned upside down on any given day because of the collective mood of the peloton. Again, I think yesterday was a fairly exceptional event, one that reflects the mental fatigue of the entire peloton, complicated by the pandemic. But it should not be encouraged.