Giro d'Italia

Commentary: What Marco Pantani would have said about a weather-shortened stage at the Giro d’Italia

The big story today was the rider strike that shortened what was to be the longest stage in this year’s race. And somehow it made me think about Marco Pantani.

It was great to see Josef Černý solo to victory today. His team deserved it. And his country deserved it. After all, CCC is ending their sponsorship and the team is essentially folding, while Černý’s home in the Czech Republic is one of the worst-hit in Europe by coronavirus.

But really the big story today was the rider strike this morning that shortened — by more than 100km — what was to be the longest stage in this year’s race. And somehow it made me think about Marco Pantani.

Today’s stage was no mountain stage. The original 252-kilometer stage from Morbegno to Asti was actually pancake flat, hence not a day which would have suited “Il Pirata”. But as the riders congregated under a tent to get out of the rain while they negotiated with race organizer Mauro Vegni to shorten the stage, I couldn’t help but think of Pantani, and how he would have seen the day as a huge opportunity — one that shouldn’t be missed.

Certainly, my heart went out to the riders as they did not deserve to be greeted by rain after three tough days in the mountains. But a rider who really had his head focused on winning this year’s Giro d’Italia, certainly would have preferred to race. Pantani was one of those riders.

Of course, regarding today’s stage, an extra 100 kilometers arguably changes little. But in the fight for the Maglia Rosa, it could change a lot. Sure the stage was flat, but 253 kilometers in the rain is much different than 150. Sandwiched between the Queen stage over the Stelvio Pass yesterday, and tomorrow’s triple assault on Sestriere, riding more than six hours in the rain would certainly have added to the fatigue, something that could play a huge role on the final mountain stage. And in a race where the top three riders are separated by a mere 15 seconds, the fatigue factor is everything.

Instead, the riders got a comparative rest day. For someone like Wilco Kelderman, who barely managed to grab the pink jersey yesterday, while losing nearly two and a half minutes to his nearest competitors, today’s shorted stage was a gift from the heavens. But for race organizer Mauro Vegni — who has struggled from the start to get Italy’s grand tour to Milan this Sunday — the move by the riders was a slap in the face.

“I am really disappointed. It is really unfair of the riders. I have been trying to get this Giro d’Italia on its feet and keep it there. It’s been very hard. I want to send a signal to the whole world that this sport is courageous and will not back down in the face of all of the problems we are facing today,” he said on the French Equipe TV channel after the stage today. “We had no message from team or riders last night. They just came to me five minutes from the start and gave me an ultimatum. Over the years I have made a lot of effort to protect riders, but to find this out five minutes before the start of a stage is not right. We had no idea!”

Personally, I tend to side with Vegni. Save a day of flash flooding—not unlike last year’s world championships in Yorkshire—bicycle races are not canceled or altered due to rain. But really it is not about who is right and who is wrong.

Bike racing is about seizing opportunities and creating your own destiny in the constant chaos that is unique to our sport. “My history in the Giro has shown me that the hardest stages are often the ones you least expect to be the worst,” American Brent Bookwalter told VeloNews before the start of this year’s race. “The hardest stage I ever did in the Giro was just one of those epic days with a combination of really bad weather and a long demanding stage that turned the race on its head.” Today’s stage could well have been one of those opportunities. Instead, it was a missed opportunity.

And somehow that brings me back to Marco Pantani. Perhaps it is because we spent a day racing around Cesenatico, the hometown of the Italian champion that would have been 50 this year. But somehow I think he would have understood the opportunity that a day like today would have provided him going into the final stage in the Alps tomorrow.

I’ll never forget the stage to Les Deux Alpes during the 1998 Tour de France. That was the day that Pantani turned the tables on Jan Ullrich with a long solo breakaway to finally take over the yellow jersey.

The 2020 Giro d’Italia raced through all kinds of weather and darkness. But the conditions on stage 19 forced a mid-race route change. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

I was on a motorbike photographing that day. And it was a day I will never forget. Rain started almost immediately as we left Grenoble that morning. And it only got worse as we climbed up epic mountain passes like the Col de la Croix-de-Fer and the Galibier. But it was here that Pantani made his move. Attacking on the Galibier, soloing down the long valley road and finally up Les Deux Alpes.

I followed Ullrich down and only caught up with Pantani as he attacked Deux Alpes. I was drenched and so were my cameras, which started to malfunction just as I caught Pantani as he powered towards the line. My flash only worked sporadically and it was nearly impossible to focus as my lens as it constantly fogged up.

When I returned to the press tent my colleagues told me that I had turned blue from the cold and the wet. And that night I put my camera equipment on the heater and turned it up full blast hoping that it would dry out my equipment by morning. I wasn’t sure it would, but it didn’t matter really. I had witnessed greatness.

That’s what the final week in any grand tour is about. You don’t cancel or shorten a stage because of rain—because every moment is crucial. You don’t cancel a day in the mountains. And you don’t cancel a day on the flats, because, well, every day counts when it comes to the Maillot Jaune or the Maglia Rosa.

Spanish champion Alberto Contador never raced with Marco Pantani. But he, too, was stunned by the rider’s move today. “Today I DO NOT understand cyclists. In my life, NEVER, they suspended a stage due to rain. Cyclists are not at risk because of that,” he told another longtime professional Bernie Eisel today on Eurosport.

Certainly, I understand the riders’ fatigue in the final days of racing. And this year it is as much mental as physical as the Giro has been held under continued question marks regarding the health conditions as COVID is again on the rise. And there has been constant speculation regarding the bad weather that was long-anticipated in the final week of racing in northern Italy. In the end, the weather conditions were far from Dantesque, but the riders folded. Perhaps today’s case will simply go down as a collective mental shutdown within the peloton after a three-week race confronted with stress not typical of a normal bike race in normal time.

Vegni, at least, does not appear to be prepared to turn the page so quickly. “Now the I just want to get the race to Milan,” he said. “But this story is not finished. After we finish the Giro and we will analyze what happened because a communiqué five minutes before the start of a stage is not tolerable. It is not something that we should tolerate in this sport. And those who are guilty will pay.”