Commentary: Fresh ideas are to be applauded, but Giro d’Italia ‘best descender’ competition a misguided concept

As first reported Monday on the Inner Ring blog, the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia, which begins Friday in Sardinia, will feature a prize for the best descender of the three-week tour, as determined by 10 timed descents. Riders that record the top five times from…

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As first reported Monday on the Inner Ring blog, the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia, which begins Friday in Sardinia, will feature a prize for the best descender of the three-week tour, as determined by 10 timed descents.

Riders that record the top five times from each descent will be awarded points, as well as 500 euros; the rider with the highest number of points at the end of the race will also earn a prize of 5,000 euros, with 3,000 and 2,000 euros on offer for the second- and third-place descenders.
Essentially, it’s the equivalent of a Strava KOM competition, a race within the race, held over 10 descents — not entirely different to the popular Enduro mountain-bike racing format. Those descents include some of the most famed roads in Italy, including the Passo dello Stelvio and Monte Grappa.

A special classification has been set out to assess the best downhill rider of the 100th Giro d’Italia. Times will be recorded along the following downhill stretches:

  • Stage 8: Monte Sant’Angelo
  • Stage 9: Chieti
  • Stage 11: Monte Fumaiolo
  • Stage 12: Colla di Cassaglia
  • Stage 15: Selvino
  • Stage 16: Passo dello Stelvio
  • Stage 17: Passo del Tonale
  • Stage 18: Passo Pordoi
  • Stage 19: Sella Chianzutan
  • Stage 20: Monte Grappa

The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th fastest riders covering the timed downhill stretches above will be awarded with 8, 5, 3, 2 and 1 points, respectively. For each timed downhill stretch, the fastest rider will be awarded with a prize of €500. At the end of the Giro, the general classification will be issued, based on the sum of the points achieved by each rider, and the following prizes will be awarded: 1st €5,000; 2nd €3,000; 3rd €2,000

As Stephen Fry, rider agent and owner of MD and M2 Sports Management, put it on Twitter, the competition adds “additional incentive to go faster on the most dangerous sections” of the race.

The competition, which will include post-race visits to the podium as well as an appearance on the final podium presentation in Milan, is sponsored by Pirelli, the Milan-based tire company. The competition has not been widely publicized, but was rather discovered in the rulebook.

Reaction from professional riders was swift and seemingly unanimous, calling a competition to determine the race’s most daring descender unnecessary and dangerous — in some cases pointing to the death of Belgian Wouter Weylandt, who lost his life at the 2011 Giro d’Italia after crashing on the descent of the Passo del Bocco.

And even more fresh in the minds of the racing community is the death of 21-year-old American Chad Young, who on Friday succumbed to injuries sustained in a crash during a high-speed descent at the Tour of the Gila stage race in New Mexico.

“Life threatening idea to give a prize to the best descender in Giro? I hope this is a joke?” wrote Team Sky’s Wout Poels. “What about safety?”

German Marcus Burghardt (Bora-Hansgrohe) also took to Twitter, writing, “It’s not that long ago that we lost our friend and [colleague] Wouter Weylandt in a descent crash. Should this happen again? No!”

Aussie Calvin Watson (Aqua Blue Sport) agreed, writing, “All for new ideas to make our sport better/more entertaining for the viewers, but this is silly. Our sport is dangerous enough as it is.”

In defense of the competition, it’s a fair question to ask (and one I asked on Twitter) — will riders take unnecessary risks to chase after 500 euros and a few minutes on the podium? Isn’t descending part of bike racing? And aren’t they already racing full speed, up and down the mountains? Is this really so different than placing a stage finish at the bottom of a descent? Crashes already happen. Is, as Scottish journalist Richard Moore put forward on Twitter, a new classification truly “greater incentive than a stage win or pink jersey?”

While it may not be greater incentive than a stage win or maglia rosa, Koen de Kort (Trek-Segafredo) believes that some riders would take additional risks — and that puts everyone at risk.

“Absolutely,” he replied in a Twitter thread on the topic. “Day prizes and final podium? It only takes a couple of idiots.”

In another comment, de Kort explained that, “Overtaking on descents and dive-bombing switchbacks will be needed to ‘win.’”

U.S.-based Robin Carpenter of Holowesko-Citadel, stage winner at the USA Pro Challenge and Tour of Utah and recent winner of the Joe Martin Stage Race, appraised the competition as “80% bad idea,” adding, “I doubt it would change much. ‘We’ already take massive risks when trying to catch back on or go for the win.”

And while descending is already part of the sport, if a competition like this nudges riders who otherwise have no chance at a stage win or top GC finish to take risks, it’s probably tempting fate more than necessary. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a young rider, earning the UCI’s minimum salary on one of the four wildcard Pro Continental teams at the race, sees an opportunity to both pick up some extra cash, make a name for himself, and perhaps land a better contract.

As Michael Carcaise, executive director of the Association of North American Professional Road Cyclists (ANAPRC), told Cyclingnews, “Of course descending is already part of racing, but it should not be isolated into a new competition that incentivizes risk-taking for its own sake.”

Or, as the anonymous author at the Inner Ring blog put it, “There’s skill and there’s stupidity, and this prize may not be discerning enough.”

Ultimately, Giro organizers RCS should be applauded for seeking new and inventive ways to liven up the race and draw in new sponsors. But in this instance, the idea is misguided, fraught with risk and the potential for the worst kind of publicity imaginable.

As with all stakeholders, RCS should listen first and foremost to the riders — and in this instance, the best move is to call off the competition before someone is seriously hurt.

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