SAN DANIELI DEL FRIULI, Italy (VN) – The narrow cobbled streets of hilltop town San Daniele del Friuli are all laid out perfectly for the finish of a bike race. Well-positioned big screens, an uphill finale offering a long-view of the last two hundred meters, and bars-a-plenty lining the street for an apero or two.
Not so well laid out, however, was the set up for us gormless hacks.
With the cramped square packed with fans and VIPs, the mixed zone – the area for press to conduct interviews – was relegated to a quiet corner where no rider would likely venture, far from both the team busses and the area where their team staffers stood with jackets and snacks.
Sure enough, the press corps stood waiting expectantly for riders, notebooks, recording gizmos, and cameras poised and ready to get … nothing.
One of the riders saw us from afar. We shouted and waved out of hope more than expectations.
However, just like the town’s Protected Denomination of Origin San Daniele cured ham, we were left hanging to dry out for another day.
One of the major changes implemented by the UCI and race organizers in the rebooted late-year calendar is the introduction of a controlled mixed zone. The “MZ” is a fenced-off pen where journalists stand and wait, hoping for a press officer to guide a reluctant rider into their grasp, or more commonly, shouting down athletes as they pass.
However, with riders scooting past in masks before a stage, you need top-class sleuthing skills to figure out who they are before they’re out of earshot. After the stage, understandably, the first thing on their mind is a can of cola and to cool-off, and an averted gaze is all it requires for them to get away scot-free, without an interview.
Safe to say, getting quotes from riders is a matter of skill, art, and practice. As my first grand tour visit and the first race I’ve worked since the implementation of the new COVID-19 protocol, it’s a steep learning curve, and when the media area is at a distance riders can easily dodge, you’ve got your work cut out.
Just as young Portuguese pink jersey-wearer attacked off the front of the GC bunch with a wily acceleration to steal a couple of seconds on GC on Tuesday’s stage, reaping rewards from the mixed zone requires both cunning, skill, and strength.
Heck, at least our trip to San Daniele del Friuli meant I got to eat some delicious salty ham.
Ronde van Giro … what?
To be on a grand tour is to become totally immersed in the race you’re covering. My brain is full of Almeida, Kelderman, Sagan, and yes, to be honest, salty ham.
So when I was reporting on the big GC throw down on the climb to the Piancavallo on Sunday, hearing that Julian Alaphilippe had crashed into a moto and two of the sport’s biggest stars were dueling out a victory at Ronde van Vlaanderen was almost too much to compute. But wait — isn’t Flanders in April? And isn’t the Giro in May? And it’s currently October?
I am sure there was plenty of double — if not triple — screening Sunday as the men’s and women’s Tour of Flanders and the Giro d’Italia unraveled in an afternoon of discombobulated cycling pleasure. But sometimes, can you have too much of a good thing? In an ideal Jim-world, I’d save Flanders for the Giro’s rest day, storing up the goodness for a day of fully-focused cobbles carnage rather than having to take on the almost-impossible endeavor of multi-tasking.
But sure enough, the jumbled late-season calendar rolls on and I’m struggling to get my bearings.
As I type, my VeloNews colleagues are writing about the opening stage of the Vuelta a España, and it was a summit finish. And it’s late October? My mind can barely process it all right now.
Whatever next, a 21-year-old Slovenian wins the Tour de France?
Oh, wait …