Commentary: Giro’s stage 16 was a grim, cold, perhaps unnecessary procession

Stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia was a grim, cold, and dangerous affair, with bailout options, which begs the question of whether it was really necessary

Photo: Tim De Waele

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VAL MARTELLO/MARTELLTAL, Italy (VN) — On Tuesday morning, it appeared the peloton had escaped the clutches of the rain and snow before it was to crest the Gavia and Stelvio passes in the quintessential Giro d’Italia stage.

That couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time it was all over, shelled riders rode grimly to their team cars at the resort atop the finish at Val Martello, their faces wet and dirty from a day spent under an angry, cold shower.

The spectacle wasn’t lost on them, either.

“Every other sport would say, ‘Jesus Christ’ … in other sports, they just think about material. They say, ‘First of all, we’re not going to risk the lives of our guys. And the second, the material costs a shitload of money.’ In our sport, nobody cares. They don’t care if the rider is sick the next day. It doesn’t matter, [if he] destroys 15 bikes on the way down there. It’s just, ‘We’re going,’” said a weary Bernhard Eisel (Sky) as he changed into dry layers in a team van.

Organizers made the decision to run the classic Giro stage up and over the Gavia and Stelvio passes, the latter of which is the loftiest paved road in the Alps, in spite of rain, snow, and frosty temperatures. Up the Stelvio they climbed, one at a time, solitary figures of black afloat in a sea of white. The road cut an artery through snowbanks six-feet tall, and through it all coursed a bike race, however absurd some found it.

“For me it’s just sick when people are out there and want to see that. That’s sick. This is sick. [None] of us is scared to fight, to give everything. But when it’s just about the most stupid and steepest climb, and people seeing us riding in the snow, not even knowing the faces. Just people shaking, stopping on the side of the road to warm up their hands,” Eisel said. “It was probably cool 20 years ago. It’s just that everybody wants to live in the present, like having the newest TV, but then still talk about the old times, how cool [those riders] were. Thanks for that. Now they can see us standing on the side of the road warming up in HD.”

Eisel laughed from time to time, and said he wasn’t complaining, noting that it benefitted  Giro organizing body RCS Sport to run the race as planned. He wondered what it would actually take for any real change in protocol to occur.

“If something happens, is somebody going to get sued? No. You never sue an organization. It’s like they do what they want. And I understand. They want to bring the race through. But bring it to the table, and don’t make decisions like that all the time … It’s not like you can’t [hold] a press conference and say, ‘Hey, guys, we decide tomorrow,’” Eisel said. “I’m not actually even complaining. I went through it. But we better count all the riders, because nobody knows if somebody got lost out there.”

Rain-ravaged teams took turns pulling up the infamous Stelvio and its myriad bends, more a grim procession than the combustible stage that fans had hoped for, as riders went from rain to snow to rain again as they climbed and descended. The race eventually broke open on the precarious Stelvio descent.

Snow fell on the Gavia, and rivulets of icewater ran down the one-lane road. It wasn’t 1988-esque, where Andy Hampsten attacked in a blizzard, but it was wet and very slippery, causing commotion and confusion.

For some, it begged the question if this was all too much. Omega Pharma-Quick Step general manager Patrick Lefevere wondered on Twitter if this was “modern cycling,” and directed the lament to UCI President Brian Cookson.

“From what I saw in the race today, I don’t think asking the riders to do what they did is reasonable. Because there was an alternative route that they could have gone on, and I think that that alternative route could have given the race a worthy winner,” Garmin-Sharp director Charly Wegelius told VeloNews. “And you know, it’s one thing riding in the snow on the flats. It’s another thing coming off two 30-kilometer descents. So I think that there should be clear rules that take out human interpretations of weather forecasts and all these variables. Because this can always be such a touch-and-go thing, you know? So I really feel for what the riders went through today, because I don’t think it was necessary.”

For the racers, though, there was no choice. It’s race or abandon, the latter of which never really seems a choice at all.

“At a certain moment, all involved stakeholders have to make a decision, and that starts with sponsors, organizations, UCI, riders, teams. Everybody has to sit at the table and say, ‘We can’t do that,’” Eisel said. “And we knew it [was] snowing up there, but they still wanna race. Riders wanna race.”

Asked if it was as bad as it looked on Tuesday, Garmin’s Nathan Haas was succinct. “I don’t know how bad it looked,” he said. “It is what it is, man. It’s cycling.”

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