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Inside the Giro Rosa: Riders discuss dirt roads, COVID-19 safety, and van Vleuten’s dominance

After four days in central Italy, the peloton heads to the coast south of Rome. Here's what riders had to say about the courses, COVID protocol, and GC contention.

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While this year’s Giro Rosa may be sorely lacking in live coverage, it’s chock-full of action and entertainment. We checked in with riders on the ground to see what’s happening on course, and behind the scenes.

Dirt roads cause pushback

While the Strade Bianche has rapidly gained in popularity since its inception to the Women’s WorldTour calendar in 2015, the addition of some of its famed white gravel roads to stage two of this year’s Giro Rosa was not as well-regarded.

“To be honest I think the course was a bit dangerous,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Tayler Wiles of Saturday’s second stage. “The first one was flat but on the side there were rocks and on the other side there was super deep gravel. The second gravel section was just incredibly steep and deep gravel in switchbacks, way harder than anything we do in Strade Bianche. For a tour like the Giro where so much is riding on the line every single day and people will prep so much for a race like this, to have something happen on a day like that is a bit unnecessary.”

Fortunately, nothing happened, save for Annemiek van Vleuten losing her rear wheel on the climb before going on to take the stage win. Perhaps more troubling was the confusion bred by conflicting accounts of the mechanical on Twitter. Even the race organizer’s post-race press release mentioned van Vleuten’s ‘puncture’ during the stage.

Annemiek Van Vleuten holds on to the lead even after coming off her bike during stage two’s steep gravel ascent. Photo: by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

On Monday, the peloton raced 170.3 kilometers, the longest stage ever in a women’s race. While riders were excited by the inclusion of a longer stage in the Giro Rosa, they stopped short of celebrating it as a victory for the sport.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge of this long stage of the Giro,” Team Sunweb’s Leah Kirchmann told VeloNews, “however, I don’t feel that women’s racing needs longer distances to improve the sport.”

As the breakaway group formed by stage winner Lizzy Banks and second-place finisher Eugenia Bujak (Alé BTC Ljubljana) with over 70 kilometers of racing to go showed, the peloton can easily go the distance.

The September shadows in Italy might be longer and the sun lower, but the heat is still on. Canyon-SRAM rider Omer Shapira reported that the heat of the opening stages has been a critical factor.

“It affects a lot about the races and the competitors,” she said. “At some point in the races yesterday and today [Monday] you could feel everyone really destroyed and tired from the heat. We’re dealing not just with race conditions but with the heat, so we have to be more focused on nutrition — drinking enough and eating right for this weather. The next days are also supposed to be very warm. We are going to southern Italy so it should be even worse.” 

COVID-19 ‘bubble’ is not always secure 

Footage from the Giro Rosa shows the same sea of – mostly – masked race officials, spectators, and riders that we’ve been seeing at other bike races. CCC-Liv’s Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio reports that the race organizers have been professional and appropriate in their adherence to COVID protocol.

“At the start at the TTT there was a guy measuring our temperature before we went to start,” she said. “He was quite particular about wearing masks and stuff. All the organization is wearing masks. The teams are also being really good and respectful in terms of wearing masks and taking precautionary measures.”

Marlen Reusser of Equipe Paule Ka conducts a temperature check ahead of stage 3. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Riders were required to have two COVID-19 tests prior to the start of the race, one at a week out and another at five days before the start. Wiles said that, while mostly respectful, she’s seen people’s attitude to COVID-19 protocol wax and wane.

“I think people’s fear around it varies,” she said. “Some are always wearing masks, some just incredibly tired of it and are a little more lax.”

One issue that both Wiles and Moolman-Pasio noticed was the hotel situation. In Grossetto, where teams were based for the first three stages of the Giro Rosa, teams found themselves staying in one hotel, and at one point, even sharing space with riders from Tirreno-Adriatico.

“Teams were supposed to be staying on one floor, and we’re supposed to be able to eat in our own eating halls so to keep our bubble as such, but that is one thing that is certainly not being adhered to here,” Moolman-Pasio said about the accommodation in Grossetto. “We’re all kind of intertwined on levels and we’re all eating in one massive eating hall.”

In terms of spectators along the course, there haven’t been many. Is this a result of hard-hit Italians taking extra precautions? Moolman-Pasio says that, for the Giro Rosa, a dearth of fans along the course is sadly business as usual.

“I believe that a big reason why we don’t often see the big crowds is not because people aren’t interested or because of COVID, but it’s because the race is not very well marketed to attract the crowds,” she said. “So I’d say nothing’s really changed with the COVID. There are a couple of people around watching but I wouldn’t say it’s less than it has been in the past. I’d say it’s the same.”

A smattering of fans near a feed zone in stage three. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Van Vleuten’s dominance

World champion van Vleuten’s GC lead hasn’t budged much since she won Saturday’s second stage, yet Monday’s podium caused some reshuffling of the order. The Mitchelton-Scott rider currently has 1:56 over Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), who edged out Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) after her fifth-place finish in Monday’s stage.

Shapira told VeloNews that personally, she’s feeling “better day by day,” yet she has noted the fatigue of four days of stage racing beginning to set in.

“You can feel in the peloton that everyone is starting to be tired,” she said. “But this is the Giro and this is the magic of the Giro to go deep day by day and to deal with the body and with the feeling of the body.”

With five stages remaining, the last two of which take in some significant mountain climbs, this year’s Giro is far from over.

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Mikayla Harvey, Annemiek Van Vleuten, Liane Lippert, Kasia Niewiadoma, and Lizzie Deignan represent a rainbow of jerseys at the start of stage three. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Tuesday and Wednesday’s stages offer something for the sprinters, and it’s unlikely that Marianne Vos will be content with just one stage win.  Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) has proved herself to be a rider to watch in all types of terrain, and Équipe Paule Ka has established its team presence soundly with Lizzy Banks’ stage win, Mikayla Harvey’s command of the white jersey, and Friday’s fourth-place finish in the team time trial.

With Elisa Longo Borghini sitting in sixth in the GC, Wiles says that Trek-Segafredo is feeling good as they round the corner toward the mid-way point of the tour.

“Morale of the team is still really good, and we’re definitely going for stage wins,” she said. “Anything can happen on the way up to the last day because I think the last day will be one of the hardest. So we’re still going for it.”