Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photos by SWpix.com/CorVos
A little over a week ago, the Education First team sent a letter to cycling’s governing body, the UCI, and to RCS, promoters of the Giro d’Italia, calling for a plan to be drawn up for the Giro to be curtailed in length due to growing fears about the pandemic spreading during the race.
The points the letter made, focussing on the likelihood of more Coronavirus positives during the race, were largely dismissed, by the UCI, RCS, the riders union, the CPA, those working on the race, and those watching from afar.
Typical EF, they said. Just another attention-seeking publicity stunt from the wacky kids with their crazy jerseys and their dandy manager.
By yesterday, Friday morning, things had apparently changed.
The peloton, almost without any warning, suddenly changed their minds. The riders threw a collective tantrum shortly before the start of stage 19 and refused to start in protest at – well, what exactly? The virus, the weather, the distance, the transfers, the fatigue? It is still not crystal clear, despite the numerous posts and comments from within the group.
On Friday, Adam Hansen, CPA representative, saying that he spoke on behalf of all the riders, lodged a post on Twitter citing early mornings, long transfers, fatigue and racing in the rain during a pandemic. He also said that any rider wishing to start the stage, as planned, could have in fact done so. Then, he added, it was a “collective, united choice.”
In many respects, the riders concerns were justified and RCS were being unreasonable. Coming three days from the end of the race, the planned route of stage 19 was absurdly, unnecessarily long; some of the transfers, even for a race known for interminably long transfers, have been over the top; lastly, the risks of the virus spreading further are indeed growing across Europe.
On the other hand, Mauro Vegni’s position was understandable too.
The stage had been in place for months; they are professionals, he argued, and in such should act in a professional way. He and his team had worked so hard to keep the race on the road. Why hadn’t they read the road book earlier and complained sooner rather than throwing their toys out of their pram on the morning of the stage and embarrassing themselves and the sport as a whole? They had blackmailed RCS, he said, his face dark with rage.
There was also confused messaging over exactly how unified the peloton was. According to some, like Hansen, it was virtually unanimous. Others had supposedly been willing to race. Whatever the exact truth, the majority refused. Some also seemed to consider themselves above any criticism. ‘Willy-waving,’ Bradley Wiggins called it in a long monologue on Eurosport, and he was right.
Luke ‘Pass on Plastic’ Rowe, a man with such deep convictions that one minute he is rescuing the ocean, the next yeehahing down country lanes in a gas-guzzling super-jeep, was among those to call the peloton’s critics ‘soft,’ because unlike him, they’d never ridden a Grand Tour.
That’s right — nobody’s as hard as pro cyclists: firemen, coal miners, deep sea trawlermen, ICU nurses doing 20 hour shifts in a pandemic – what do they know about riding 260k in the rain…?
Wiggins, meanwhile, a man haunted by unresolved controversy, has nonetheless developed a disarming ability to cut through since he retired from the sport and became a pundit.
“I realise just how much of a privilege it is to be a pro cyclist,” he said. “I think riders do have a responsibility to ride and that’s why they’re elite cyclists because it’s doing something that normal people perceive themselves as being unable to do, something of this magnitude.”
Those of us who’ve covered cycling for so many years, who’ve seen bloodied tearful riders wheel to a halt at their team bus, know very well there is nothing ‘soft’ about this sport, in any way. We are left slack-jawed in admiration for the riders on so many occasions — on the Stelvio in late October, for example, silhouetted against Arctic snowfields under a bone-chilling sky.
Cycling is a hard sport, maybe the hardest, but that’s not the point. This debate is about professionalism and public image, because it is a sport that also sometimes leaves us thinking, like Wiggins, ‘what a shambles…’
The morning after, the suspicion persists that the rain and the distance were the biggest contributory factors to the refusal to race stage 19 as originally planned. It was cold and wet yes, but how much worse was the weather than during last week’s Three Days of De Panne, which Matthieu Van der Poel finished in a rain-filled ditch?
All of the concerns — the distance, the virus, the transfers — could and should have been put to RCS much earlier by both the CPA and the UCI, and ideally not under the gaze of the media in a start village in the pouring rain. Clearly, that’s wishful thinking though and instead we get the unedifying sight of the riders standing around sniggering, while teacher fumes and TV viewers around the world wonder what the hell is going on.
Could such a scenario have been avoided? Well, of course. But that would require a collective will to improve things.
“Our letter was just in the spirit of getting RCS and the teams to work together on considering wrapping the race up early,” Vaughters had said in the aftermaths of his team’s letter being shrugged off. It was, he said, a bid to get the teams and RCS to finish the Giro in an “organised and honourable way, as opposed to something more chaotic…”