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ONDONAS, France (VN) — Frigid riders were thankful race organizers cancelled Wednesday’s snow-bound stage at Paris-Nice, but more than a few wondered why there wasn’t an alternative route already in the works.
Snow and cold forced organizers to cancel a Paris-Nice stage for only the third time in 25 years. The stage was stopped on the snow-bound Col des Echarmeux at 714m (2,343 feet), after about 98km. Conditions certainly warranted action. Things were so bad that Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) ran into a nearby home to warm up, and Luis Angel Maté (Cofidis) said he urinated on himself to keep warm in the brutal conditions.
“When we went over the top, it was definitely a winter wonderland,” said Sky’s Ian Boswell. “Cold and rain are one thing, but snow on the road is another level of severity. They made the right call.”
The likelihood of snow didn’t come as a surprise to anyone after very cold days of racing so far in Paris-Nice, however, and some wondered why the race was not rerouted before it even started Wednesday. Some were looking at a valley road that ran parallel to the climbs, which was clear of snow and led all the way to the closing circuit and final climb to the Mont Brouilly summit, also mostly clear of snow.
“We don’t want to see races cancelled, but today they made the right call,” said Dimension Data’s Tyler Farrar. “We are glad they took mercy on us, but it would be nice to find a way in the future to have an alternative route, if possible, so at least we can have some sort of result on the day.” Sky’s Geraint Thomas also questioned why the race couldn’t have been rerouted.
Maybe there was another road we could have taken to get to the finish, that didn’t go as high? And we could have raced #justathought
— Geraint Thomas (@GeraintThomas86) March 9, 2016
The peloton woke up Wednesday to 41 degrees and rain at Cusset, 357 meters above sea level. Race organizers met with members of the CPA to hold a pre-stage meeting in keeping with the extreme weather protocol, but conditions appeared to be holding up. When VeloNews drove over the Echarmeux climb about two hours before the peloton, there were only light flurries, and the road was clear. Things quickly worsened as the temperature plunged to near-freezing, and by the time team soigneurs arrived to a feed zone near the Écharmeaux climb, the road was choked with snow.
Paris-Nice technical director Thierry Gouvenou defended the decision to start the race, and later cancel it, and insisted the decision was made based on the conditions at the time.
“There was a meeting with the representatives of the CPA before the stage. It was unpleasant, but conditions were far from extreme,” Gouvenou said of the rules outlining weather protocols. “Our concern is the safety of the riders. At the start of the race, there was no danger, but as the weather quickly changed, it became too dangerous, and the right decision was made.”
Race organizers didn’t have an alternate route, nor are they required to, but they did try to re-start the race with 45km to go. Eventually it was too difficult to try to pile wet and cold riders into team vehicles — team buses were already waiting near the finish line — drive them down the hill, and then have everyone get back on their bikes.
Sky’s Boswell agreed cancelling the stage was the right call, but also wondered if organizers should have a back-up route ready when conditions are known to be bad.
“Race promoters always take a bit of a gamble to make sure that their race is on, and the riders want to compete,” Boswell said. “We already saw yesterday that it was probably going to be snowing today, so maybe they could have had a ‘plan B’ just in case. If there is a stage with an alternative route, then everyone knows about it, and the teams can get organized. It’s not something you can make a decision about in three minutes.”
Officials, however, said road closures are planned months in advance. Police and volunteers are posted along the entire race course, and officials said that it would be nearly impossible to change the route or try to organize a rolling closure without much more notice.
“The rain eased up, and we thought it was getting better, but it quickly became much worse,” Gouvenou said. “The first call was to try to re-start the race, but from the point of view from the riders, it was very cold. It would have been too much to try to get going again. There was some discussion to only do only one climb on the final summit, instead of the circuit, but when everything was considered, the decision was made to cancel the stage.”
Cannondale’s Lawson Craddock agreed it was too dangerous to race, and applauded the decision to cancel the stage.
“It was the right decision to cancel it. It was truly impossible to have a peloton to race through that. It was way too dangerous,” Craddock said. “It was good they took the rider safety into consideration. It’s a good step for the future, because it shows we’re not just sheep out there.”
Wednesday’s cancellation once again raised the issue of extreme weather protocol, and revealed how fast-changing, unpredictable weather remains a challenge to professional cycling. Everyone agrees it’s difficult to balance rider safety with the interests of race organizers, for fans waiting on the side of the road, and communities that have invested in hosting race starts and finishes. Yet riding through the elements is an essential part of the history and allure of bike racing.
“You know in early March in Europe you’re going to have some bad weather,” Farrar said. “No one wants to see a race cancelled, and for some of the guys here, this was their big chance to try to win a stage. It’s a shame we couldn’t find a way to finish the stage.”
For an old-school ex-pro like Gouvenou to cancel the stage Wednesday, you know things must have been pretty bad, but he also worried about cycling becoming too cautious.
“If you want to cancel the race every time there is bad weather, you might as well give the sport a different name,” Gouvenou said. “This extreme weather protocol is a bit of a ghost.”