Terminillo blizzard at Tirreno-Adriatico reignites weather debate

Blizzard conditions plagued the end of Sunday's Tirreno-Adriatico fifth stage

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RIETI, Italy (VN) — Pelting snow, shivering riders, and slippery roads; Sunday’s dramatic finale atop the snow-bound Terminillo summit at Tirreno-Adriatico served to reignite the debate over when organizers should pull the plug in adverse conditions.

Great images, but hardly great racing conditions. Where does cycling draw the line? That question once again became front and center in the wake of Sunday’s wild finale.

When a race official was sweeping snow off the finish line just minutes before Nairo Quintana (Movistar) dashed to victory, you knew things were getting dicey (and icy). No one crashed, more than a few muttered, but no one had a clear answer on how to handle the fast-changing, erratic weather conditions of racing.

And that’s the general frustration across the peloton. Just weeks after a sandstorm disrupted a stage at the Tour of Oman, the question of what to do when weather turns bad remains unanswered. And the spring classics are still to come.

Moments after winning in such extreme yet dramatic conditions, Quintana said it’s time for reflection among race organizers and cycling federations.

“When there’s extreme heat, or cold, or dangerous circuits, they’re playing with the lives of the riders. We are humans, too, and I ask that all the race organizers put their hands on their hearts, and think in the good of the riders,” Quintana said. “Today, it was easier to do, because it was a summit finale, and there was no way to hurt the riders, but when there are mountain stages, climbing and descending all day, with rain, we only ask that they consider us as well.”

The conditions at the Terminillo summit revealed just how tricky it can be to answer the question of what to do about bad weather. Just 45 minutes before the stage finish, there were slight snow flurries, the roads were wet, but no snow was accumulating, and conditions were easily passable for bikes and team cars. That quickly changed as a heavy snowfall began to dump on the closing, decisive kilometers of the 14km Terminillo climb.

Despite forecasters calling for a chance of snow, no one seriously considered canceling the stage. Organizers changed the team parking area, to just 500 meters past the finish line (at the same elevation), so riders did not have to make the wet, cold descent to a planned team bus parking area at the base of the mountain. Conditions were far from ideal, but that’s part of the appeal and drama of professional road racing. Races are held on the open road, in whatever conditions the weather gods deliver that day. Take that away, and cycling loses part of its uniqueness and charm.

The big difference Sunday was that the stage ended atop the mountain, and the extreme weather came in the closing two or three kilometers of racing. Nearly everyone at Tirreno-Adriatico on Sunday was quick to point that out, including the day’s main protagonists.

“It was a bit slippery. We were lucky there were not too many corners. I was going full-gas in the last 3km,” said Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), who finished second. “For me, it’s not a problem. It’s uphill. I wasn’t cold in the final, maybe guys in the gruppetto, they were really cold. If you’re going down, that’s crazy, that’s something else.”

Riders and teams, however, are demanding more clarification of the rules on how to deal with extreme conditions. It’s not just a problem in Italy in the spring — the Giro d’Italia has seen its fair share of controversy, including the Stelvio debacle last year — but it also afflicts the spring classics, races in Spain, and just about anywhere. Even the Tour de France is not immune to foul weather.

There are broad guidelines in the existing rulebook, and the ultimate call remains with the race organizer. Common sense usually carries the day, but there is no clear protocol or parameters for organizers or race officials to follow in the face of fast-changing or extreme weather conditions.

This week, Gianni Bugno, the president of the Cycliste Professionnels Associes (CPA), said his group will work with the UCI to formulate a workable standard, dubbed the “Extreme Weather Protocol.” A former pro, Bugno admitted there is no easy answer.

“We’re the only sport with such open weather conditions. There are a lot of variables. It’s not so easy, but there needs to be limits,” Bugno told reporters last week. “It’s difficult to say what they should be, but we need limits. It could be wind, heat, snow, rain, or cold, but we need to create a document that spells out when we do not race.”

That sentiment is shared across the peloton. Speaking to VeloNews at the start of Sunday’s stage, American Tyler Farrar (MTN-Qhubeka) said the peloton wants to see standards in place.

“There needs to be some limits set. You have to take a lot of factors into account. No one wants the races to be cancelled, and the riders don’t either, but when it’s 47C, or like last year, on the Stelvio, that’s not safe. Something needs to be laid out, to create a workable framework,” Farrar said. “It doesn’t have to be an issue, ‘oh, when it rains, we stop.’ But there comes a point when it does become ridiculous. … It needs to be fixed criteria, so there is not a debate on the morning of the race. There needs to be a protocol, so it eliminates all of the drama.”

Everyone looks to last year’s controversial stage over the Gavia-Stelvio double at the 2014 Giro d’Italia — when heavy snow piled up on both summits, and the riders were forced to descend on wet roads under confusion of whether or not the descent had been neutralized — as the example not to follow.

Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) said there is universal agreement within the peloton that more standardized criteria should be enacted.

“I would like to see more formal criteria, not just in the interest of keeping us safe, but also out of respect for the race organizers and the communities. I understand that one of the things that makes cycling beautiful is that it is open to the elements and the battle in the extreme conditions, but there is a line between the harsh, epic conditions, and ridiculous, dangerous ones,” Bookwalter told VeloNews. “That not only puts us in danger, but it makes the races look bad. We need something to quantify these conditions, but also how it’s communicated to the team and the riders.”

On Monday, riders huddled inside team buses as a light rain and cold temperatures descended on the peloton for the start of stage 6. Riders put on rain capes, arm warmers, and hats to keep warm in what would be a long, wet day in the saddle.

“At least it’s not snowing,” muttered one rider with a smile.

The debate will continue to rage, but for the peloton, the show must go on.

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