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Friday threw yet another twist into the rollercoaster of this year’s Giro d’Italia.
The 19th stage of the race was halved in length after riders protested over the back-to-back long days and wearing weather of the final week of the race as they faced nearly 260km of flat, featureless roads in the rain.
The chaotic late call to reconfigure the marathon ride into Asti adds yet another exclamation point to a race that has already faced COVID crises, marquee rider abandonment, and stage reroutings. While the departures of Mitchelton-Scott and Jumbo-Visma, the abandonment of Geraint Thomas, and the redesign of stage 20 are done, dusted, and agreed upon, Friday’s rider protest is a matter that could boil under the surface for some time.
With at least two top teams and the race organization sitting on one side, and the majority of the peloton and the riders’ group the CPA on the other, the 2020 Giro is seeing its biggest polemica yet.
A late rallying cry by key voices in the peloton sparked the controversy Thursday night.
“Due to the fatigue of this race on our immune systems, the riders thought it was even more unnecessary to do a 260km stage starting in the rain with a pandemic going on,” explained veteran and mouthpiece of the peloton Adam Hansen via Twitter.
Despite raising concerns the night before the long grinding stage to Asti, the decision to abbreviate the day was only made in the finals hours before the scheduled departure from Abbiategrasso. Following tense discussions led by Hansen under a tent in the pouring rain, race organizers agreed to the proposal to start the stage midway through the course, thus shortening it to 124km.
While the majority of the bunch was pleased by the decision, leading figures claimed to have known little about it.
“Our guys were lined up to start. We wanted to do the stage,” Team Ineos director Matteo Tosatto told Gazzetta dello Sport. “I understand the stage is long, but my riders wanted to race, and we’re on the side of our riders.”
Bora-Hansgrohe, home of star rider Peter Sagan who is nearing the end of his much-hyped debut at the race, was similarly disappointed.
“It is true that yesterday’s stage was very tough, with more than 5,800 meters of elevation gain and a climb over the Stelvio, that we had to leave our hotels this morning at 6 a.m. and that weather conditions were a bit difficult today,” said team manager Ralph Denk. “However, it was possible to race today and I think it was unfair to inform race organizers in the morning that there would be a strike. This isn’t professional, this isn’t the way it should be.”
The decision by riders to protest about the stage was conducted via the messaging app Telegram. After initial concerns were voiced, the decision to call strike was made via a vote, with Tuttobici stating that 12 team representatives voted ‘yes’, two teams representative voted ‘no,’ and four representatives opted to go with the majority.
#Giro – Salvato at Tuttobiciweb confirms that team representative vote
Bardiani-CSF and Trek-Segafredo representatives didn't vote.
12 team representative voted for 'yes'
2 teams representative voted for 'no'
4 teams representative voted to join the majority of the vote https://t.co/Tf65Vyt9cM
— La Flamme Rouge (@laflammerouge16) October 23, 2020
Vincenzo Nibali, superstar of Italian cycling, didn’t get the memo.
“I only understood this morning when I was signing on,” he said. “Nobody told me about it. I did not know the motivations. They told me that it was a decision of the CPA. There was a chat in Telegram, but an informal Telegram chat wasn’t the right place to speak. I saw that there was a discussion in the evening before, but it didn’t seem that a stage-cut was decided there.”
Since the Giro’s second rest day Monday, the peloton had endured three consecutive days of six to seven hours in the saddle, covering a distance of more than 200 kilometers each stage. On top of that, teams have faced several more hours each day in the buses during long transfers between accommodations and stage starts and finishes as the race hits the limited infrastructure of the mountains.
The prospect of nearly seven hours in the cool temperatures and persistent rain in the 258km haul to Asti only to see a bunch sprint or breakaway victory was the straw that broke the camel’s back that prompted the protest.
Many riders, both those on the race or in their armchairs, welcomed what seemed a logical decision on social media.
“Great to see the unity of the riders & CPA today,” Alex Dowsett wrote on Twitter. “As riders, we race against each other but we also all race with each other.”
Great to see the unity of the riders & CPA today. As riders we race against each other but we also all race with each other.
— Alex Dowsett (@alexdowsett) October 23, 2020
“The weather was really terrible this morning”, newly crowned race-leader Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) said after the race. “These cold temperatures pose a risk to the riders’ immune system. We as riders wanted the ride to be shortened and we are grateful to RCS for making this decision.”
However, voices both inside and outside the peloton criticized riders as being lazy or shirking from their responsibilities, with riders reporting after the stage that roadside fans booed them and spat on the road in front of them in a show of disapproval.
For many of the critics, the call was made too late. With the Giro’s route being in the books for 12 months now, teams and rider organizations had plenty of time to protest. However, way back then, the race was due to be held in the warming weather of late May, and staffers were as-yet unaware of transfer times, as Hansen clarified in a statement on Twitter.
After heated discussions in the cool, rain-soaked tent in Abbiategrasso, the decision was made, and riders pedaled a handful of kilometers before jumping into team buses to transfer to the new stage start.
— Adam #Vegan Hansen (@HansenAdam) October 23, 2020
“It was a collective unified choice,” Hansen wrote. “RCS and Vegni accepted it. There was some confusion beforehand, however, in the end, everyone raced to the maximum.”
The stage was eventually won in two and a half hours, with Josef Černý taking the spoils having attacked the escape group. Victor Campenaerts came in 18 seconds behind the Czech race leader to take second place in a hard-fought breakaway battle.
“In the bus, we said to ourselves that we had to give the organization a good show because they had agreed to shorten the stage,” Campenaerts said after the race. “It was more interesting than a simple 10-second bunch sprint, right?”
The show will continue in the high mountains Saturday, with a triple ascent of the climb to Sestriere likely to be decisive in determining the race’s overall winner. With legs freshened after a shorter stage Friday, the racing could be even more fearsome.
However the racing plays out in the final stages of this year’s rollercoaster Giro, race organizer Mauro Vegni will be doing more than awarding the Trofeo Senza Fine to one lucky rider in Milan. Furious at what he deems a show of disrespect for his race, the RCS chief is out for blood.
“Right now, we’re thinking about getting to Milan, but then somebody will pay for this,” he said.
Friday’s stage may have been some three hours shorter than planned, but the resulting polemica could roll on some time yet.