Rain, Italian roads are a dangerous mix at the Giro

The Giro peloton is facing a nasty mix of poor weather and slick roads throughout the first week of the corsa rosa

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Spring rains and grimy Italian roads have proven a lethal combo to the 2014 Giro d’Italia.

After a string of rainy stages in Ireland, the peloton was looking forward to warmer temperatures and sunny skies, but a spring storm has draped over the southern half of Italy, causing havoc for the Giro peloton.

“Roads become a pool of soap when it gets wet,” said pre-Giro favorite Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who suffered one of his worst crashes in Europe in Thursday’s stage 6, crossing the line visibly shaken up, with raspberries on his knees, elbows, hip, and shoulders.

“It’s been a difficult first week due to the bad weather,” Quintana continued, who finished in the chase group at 49 seconds back. “We got through all the crashes until [Thursday]. Crashes in the last two days are normal, because it’s been a long time without rain in the area.”

Anyone hoping for better weather in southern Italy was in for a rude shock when riders arrived Monday on flights from Ireland.

A storm blew in off the Mediterranean, serving up cool temperatures, wind, and rain showers. Irish weather on Italian roads, however, does not mix well.

Nervous riders refused to contest Tuesday’s technical urban circuit in Bari due to dangerous conditions, and even then, dozens of riders still hit the deck.

The peloton made it through Wednesday’s stage relatively unscathed, but things turned nasty in the closing kilometers Thursday.

Powered by tailwinds, the peloton was roaring at nearly 70kph, having just shut down the day’s main breakaway. As teams jostled to put riders into position heading toward the final climb at Montecassino, the road squeezed from four lanes into a traffic circle, and the peloton blew up.

Nearly every team saw riders go down. Orica-GreenEdge placed three riders into the winning, eight-man move, with Michael Matthews taking the stage victory, but day-one pink jersey holder Svein Tuft went down hard, and Aussie veteran Brett Lancaster did not start Friday.

Katusha was worse off, losing pre-Giro favorite Joaquim Rodríguez as well as Angel Vicioso, who suffered a fractured femur, and Giampaolo Caruso, who had injured his wrist during a crash on Ireland.

Thursday’s crash provoked another debate on sporting ethics if attacking riders should have waited for their fallen comrades.

Other names losing GC options were Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Steven Kruijswijk (Belkin), who both lost more than 15 minutes, and Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing), who ceded more than 18 minutes.

No team was immune. Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman rebounded from a crash to win the sprint out of the chase group with seventh, but Kruijswijk and Rick Flens both went to the hospital.

“It was a terrible crash. It was not a lucky day for us,” said Belkin sport director Frans Maassen. “That’s racing in southern Italy. When it started to rain, it became very slippery. We knew it would be very dangerous, and we saw that with the massive crash.”

Italy’s mayhem was in sharp contrast to the opening stages in Ireland.

Three stages across Ireland saw the peloton pelted by wind, rain, and cold temperatures, but other than the costly crash of Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), who slipped on a manhole cover in the team time trial, there were otherwise relatively few crashes.

Why? First off, the Irish road conditions are much better than in southern Italy, where road maintenance and surface quality are markedly worse off. Riders were already complaining during Tirreno-Adriatico about the sorry state of Italian roads, where road construction projects have been delayed due to the country’s worsening economic crisis.

And more importantly, Irish roads are literally washed clean every time it rains, and it rains a lot in Ireland.

Roads in southern Italy, meanwhile, get loaded up with oil, dust, and other grime. It had not rained in weeks, so when the first raindrops fell, the roads turned into an ice skating rink.

“I took a good blow when I landed during the crash at the roundabout, and I slid a long, long way,” said Michele Scarponi (Astana), who lost 1:37. “Losing time to the favorites is not a good thing, but the Giro is long.”

So far through the 2014 Giro, it’s rained during at least portions of every stage. That’s not atypical for the Giro, which has seen some dramatic weather over the decades, including the famous stage through the snow over the Gavia when Andy Hampsten won in 1988, but more than a few riders are starting to grumble.

If riders are hoping for a reprieve, they’re in for a disappointment. Forecasters are calling for cool temperatures and a chance of showers for the finish Friday afternoon in Foligno.

Showers are expected to continue through the weekend for the Giro’s first major mountaintop finishes. The peloton might not see the sun until early next week.

And with meters of snow piled up high in the Alps, there are early reports that stage 16 to Val Martello, with climbs over the Gavia and Stelvio, might be cancelled.

After relatively benign weather during the spring classics, inclement weather is proving a decisive factor in the season’s first grand tour.

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