Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Two weeks into a Giro d’Italia that’s had only two dry days, some are asking whether the racing calendar needs a major overhaul to reduce the likelihood of the weather affecting races
It’s now 28 years since the Vuelta a España changed from a mid-April to a late August start date. The switch was designed to end a clash with the Giro d’Italia, which would get under way just a handful of days after the Vuelta had finished and often drew a much stronger field.
Very much the bronze medallist in the Grand Tour pecking order at that time, the Vuelta aimed to boost its pulling power by presenting itself as a late season consolation for GC stars who had come up short at the Giro and the Tour de France. Although it took some seasons for this to happen, from 2006, when Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov took the title, the Vuelta has attracted a much deeper and more international line-up. It hasn’t been dominated by home riders in the way that it once was.
Since Vino’s success, a number of the peloton’s outstanding stage racing talents have taken the title, including Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Primož Roglič and Remco Evenepoel. As a result, it’s become much more than a consolation prize and has arguably attained the same level of prestige as the Giro, now equal second in the pecking order behind the peerless Tour de France.
Another factor that played a part in that switch to the late-summer date was the weather. Although southern Spain could be counted on to be temperate during the spring, conditions were often harsh in the centre and north of the country, the traditional heartlands of the sport in Spain. April tended to start with the riders getting a dousing at the Tour of the Basque Country and end with them getting another in as the Vuelta ground its way through Cantabria, Asturias and the provinces in the high central plateau. Nowadays, though, the riders relish the prospect of a three-week race where the weather’s likely to be hot and settled, and that’s more relaxed than its Grand Tour peers.
The radical reworking of the calendar in the mid-1990s also resulted in the Giro’s slot on the calendar changing, although not as significantly – or at least it didn’t seem very noteworthy at the time. The 1994 Giro, when Evgeni Berzin and Marco Pantani ripped apart Miguel Indurain’s goal of a corsa rosa treble, started on 22 May and ran to 12 June. That meant it overlapped with what was then the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and ended just two days before the Tour of Switzerland began. Twelve months later, the Giro kicked off on 13 May. That seismic shift has steadily continued. This year’s Grande Partenza was on the 6th of May.
Twenty-eight years on from this revamp of the Grand Tour schedule, the state of the weather has triggered debate about the need for new and very significant changes to the racing calendar. During the opening half of the Giro, as riders raced through persistently heavy rain and were hit by Covid and other bugs, some bloggers were suggesting switching the Giro and Vuelta in order to reduce the risk of persistent bad conditions affecting the corsa rosa. They argued that both races would benefit from this. The Giro’s stages in the Alps and Dolomites would, generally, be clear of snow and rain. Meanwhile, the Vuelta would avoid the scorching late summer heat of Andalucia and Extremadura.
It struck me, though, that these suggestions overlooked potential complications at the other end of the two countries. The heat in southern Italy and Sicily can be as intense as it is in Andalucia in August and September. What’s more, the conditions in Spain’s northerly mountain ranges can be extremely unpredictable too. Writing this sitting on the French side of the Pyrenees, where rainclouds have cloaked the region for the last week or so, on the few occasions I do get a sight of the high mountains they are topped with snow, while some of the high passes are closed.
Given the impact of climate change across Europe, and of course the rest of the globe, there’s not a simple answer to this issue. Shifting the Giro back a couple of weeks to those early 90s dates would probably result in its mountains being passable most of the time and wouldn’t inconvenience Dauphiné organisers ASO too much, given that their race is very much prep for the Tour. The organisers of Switzerland’s national tour might not be as keen, but pushing the Tour de France back a week so that it starts on the second weekend of July rather than the first would allow the Swiss race a bit of breathing space too.
Ultimately, though, cycling reflects the overriding issue of our time, that climate change is changing the planet and we’re not doing enough to reduce its impact. While tinkering with the calendar might help alleviate the problem, the weather’s getting increasingly unpredictable and races are ever more likely to be affected.
We need to take more dramatic action at macro and micro levels to slow or even reverse this frightening trend. Cycling should be doing this by making more dramatic changes, restructuring the calendar so that travel demands are reduced, for instance, and by cutting back on the number of vehicles at races. My fear, though, is that, as in the wider world, change won’t come fast enough and the sport will end up pissing into an alarmingly capricious wind.
Check out the latest podcast from RadioCycling, featuring an exclusive and illuminating interview with new CPA president Adam Hansen, Ineos DS on the threat of Covid at the Tour de France and a scoop on Remco’s racing schedule.