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Giro d'Italia

Pushing the envelope: How far is too far for grand tour start?

For the racers and their support staff, many are wondering how far is too far for an overseas grand tour start.

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CATANIA, Italy (VN) — The Giro d’Italia peloton breathed a collective sigh of relief Monday. Riders and staff were safely back on European soil after a three-day adventure in Israel that was fraught with controversy and logistical challenges.

Giro organizers were counting their lucky stars. No one was seriously injured — other than Kanstantsin Siutsou in a training crash — and there were no violent protests or disruptions to the race. And despite polemics and some complaints about Sunday’s dangerous and high-speed finale, the peloton seemed generally satisfied with cycling’s first grand tour start beyond the European realm.

“It was a bit of a surprise, to be honest,” said pink jersey Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing). “[The Israelis] took to the race really well. The fans supported us as if they were from a big cycling country.”

Even as the 2018 Giro prepares to click back into gear Tuesday with three challenging stages across Sicily and its traditional three-week trek up the breath of Italy’s boot, the Italian grand tour is already looking ahead to the next horizon.

The Giro is mum about where the next big adventure might be, but there have been talks of such places as the United States, Japan, and other destinations in the Middle East.

Yet for the racers and their support staff, many are wondering how far is too far for an overseas grand tour start.

“For me, the bigger issue is that the route of a grand tour should be inside Europe,” said Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens. “It’s the Tour of Italy. When you start in Israel, it’s a little bit strange. A place like Belgium is OK because it is in Europe, and it’s just a question of crossing borders.”

That question of “where to next” will be an interesting tug-of-war of ideas that will play out over the next several years. The traditionalists on one side insist that grand tours should stay true to their roots, while others want to maximize opportunities to bring races to untapped and enthusiastic markets (and cash a nice check along the way) in the Americas, Asia and beyond.

The enthusiasm of the local cycling culture was on display during Saturday’s stage. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Riders were grumbling Monday about what was by any measure a brutal transfer from Israel to Sicily. After racing 220km on Sunday across the wind-swept Negev Desert on Sunday, riders had to wake up as early as 5 a.m. on Monday morning to ride a bus for one hour and then fly nearly three hours to Catania (and that doesn’t count sitting around the airport for another hour or so). Tuesday’s stage is no walk in the park, with an undulating 198km stage across the green hills and rough roads of Sicily that ends with a sharp uphill finale.

Four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome (Sky) wondered out loud about what the limits should be of how much race organizers can press the peloton.

“This has been something unlike any other race I’ve done,” Froome told VeloNews contributor Gregor Brown. “There are positives and negatives. Logistically, it’s a bit of a nightmare. It’s great for the sport in terms of promoting cycling in new territory.”

It’s not that road cycling is somehow dying on the vine in Europe. The sport is booming in the United Kingdom and is enjoying a revival in such places as Germany, Spain, and Italy. The northern classics have put Flanders on the map as the go-to destination each spring for bike geeks across the world.

So what’s driving this global expansion? One word: money. Promoters can earn huge cash payments from keen promoters. The Israelis paid an estimated $13 million to draw the Giro to Jerusalem (and a lot more with other add-ons). That kind of money simply cannot be rounded up among cash-strapped city halls and regional governments in Italy.

The same goes for the Vuelta a España and Tour de France. The powerful ASO organization has tapped into the booming UK scene by bringing the Tour there twice over the past decade as well as developing the popular Tour of Yorkshire.

There are even more succulent pots of gold waiting further afield. Tour officials have long flirted with the idea to bring cycling’s biggest race to such Francophile destinations as Quebec or Guadalupe in the Caribbean. In the end, ASO decided it was just too far.

The Giro’s race director Mauro Vegni seems tempted to reach cycling’s final frontier. Could a three-week grand tour realistically start in a place as far away from Italy as Japan, Colombia, or the United States? Logistically and physically, the distance might be a bridge too far.

The flight Monday morning from Israel to Sicily was about three hours, a manageable distance for today’s travel-savvy peloton. The grand tours sometimes have in-country rest-day transfers of a similar time, be it by plane, train, or sea.

Reaching further out to edges of the Middle East, eastern and northern Europe, and even into northern Africa would all be realistic and fit within the realm of reason. A flight from Moscow to Milan, for example, is only three and a half hours. Dubai to Rome is about six hours. Marrakesh to Naples is little more than three hours.

The gap quickly widens beyond that. The distances to the United States and Japan (or even Australia) are obviously much more than that. A direct flight from New York City to Malpensa is about eight hours. Toyko to Venice is about almost 14 hours.

For Giro race leader Dennis, all this talk of exporting grand tours halfway across the globe is just too much. The Australian, who is based in Spain’s Catalunya region, put a reasonable limit on mid-race travel days at five hours.

Rohan Dennis Giro
Rohan Dennis celebrated on the podium after claiming the Maglia Rosa on the second stage of the 2018 Giro d’Italia. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“I wouldn’t want to travel more than five hours on a plane on a rest day,” Dennis said. “You never know what the limits are. There has to be a point when we say that it’s too far.”

If the Giro would venture further afield, Dennis also pointed out that riders would need at least one day to travel and another to recover before racing again after such a long flight. That would require a two-day “rest day” right after the third or fourth stage.

Another wrinkle is that the UCI would have to sign off on restructuring what a grand tour looks like. Cycling’s governing body has already given the Giro a break to allow a third rest day when they venture to such places as Belfast and Israel. The race starts on a Friday, races over the weekend, and travels back to Italy on Monday.

Breaking that final time barrier of six-hours-plus would almost certainly require a two-day rest period right at the front end of a grand tour. The UCI might balk at that, especially if teams and riders raise a stink.

Riders admit they sometimes they feel like pawns in a larger game. Canadian veteran Svein Tuft (Mitchelton-Scott), who’s raced all over the world during his long career, said following the money is just another aspect of being a professional bike racer.

“That’s just part of the deal,” Tuft said. “If you want to be in the biggest bike race, so you go to where they ask you. That’s the way it’s always been.”

Some argue that it’s just too demanding for racers to be able to perform at a high level after traveling such long distances. There’s a thin line between circus and sporting credibility. It appears as if race organizers think that bike racers are immune to jet lag.

But there’s also a tantalizing argument to be made — why not?

Giro d'Italia in Israel
Jerusalem played host to the 2018 Giro d’Italia on Friday. Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

Cycling is trying to reach a new audience and sell itself as a global sport. Europe is undeniably where the sport’s roots lie, but the world is craving to see the Chris Froome’s and Peter Sagan’s in person. Bringing the Giro to Little Italy in Manhattan or to Japan on the dawn of 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo would be off the charts.

“In my mind, modern cycling has to reinvent itself,” said Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere. “In my mind, a 22-day stage race is not modern anymore. So why not take the race to America? You could race there for a week, and come back to Europe, and race two more weeks. Why not? If we don’t have to go to the moon, I think it’s OK.”

Recent Giro excursions to Northern Ireland and Israel have helped crack open the door. Both “big starts” were decried as being too far and too logistically difficult to pull off. Yet each time, RCS Sport defied the critics and delivered a strong product. The Belfast start was arguably one of the most successful “grande partenza” in Giro history. And Israel stands up, at least in sporting criteria. The crowds turned out, roads were decent, the hotels were first-rate and there wasn’t a major disaster.

Perhaps that is a low bar to set, but how much more interesting would the 2018 Giro be if it started in Puglia? Political questions aside, starting the Giro in Puglia would have been just as “boring” as most grand tour starts typically are, but without the fascination and controversy that Israel brought to the race.

Logistically, RCS Sport has proven they can pull off long-distance exotic starts. The key is to “locally source” equipment such as local cars, trucks and other gear so teams can travel with the bare minimum.

Since its invention, grand tour racing has always been about pushing boundaries. A century ago, no one could have imagined racing a bike around the whole of France in a “grande boucle” of just six stages. The sport has continued to evolve with each generation, be it by adding climbs, piling on distances, bike frame materials or increasing speeds and endurance.

Maybe as grand tour racing pedals into its second century, the time has come to think big again. If the sport wants to be truly global, maybe cycling needs to look beyond its European box.

After all, isn’t it the larger-than-life exploits that cyclists are able to deliver that keeps us all coming back anyway?