Sometimes when I’m watching bike racing on television, I try to put myself in the shoes of someone who has never watched the sport before. There are occasions, like when it is a nail-biting sprint finish or a dramatic fight for a breakaway, when I think it would be an easy sell. When I think that I could really convince someone who is on the verge of becoming a cycling fan that this is one of the most adrenaline-filled and exciting sports in the world, with characters and storylines that will break your heart and lift your spirits all at the same time. I don’t always feel this way, though. In long sprint stages when the peloton is meandering along wide roads for hours, or when you’ve been waiting weeks for some general classification action (yes, I am looking at you 2023 Giro d’Italia), it’s much harder to think of how you’d persuade someone to spend hours watching bike racing on TV.
Normally in Grand Tours, stages fall in either of these two categories – I can easily decide on which ones I’d recommend watching back to non-cycling fans to bring them onboard the bike racing hype and which I’d firmly put in the boring box to never be seen again. Stage 20 of this year’s Giro d’Italia, though, was somewhat of an anomaly. Watching Primož Roglič and Geraint Thomas in the final stages of their time trials battling it out for the pink jersey, was the excitement I’d been expecting, but for the almost six hours of TV coverage before that, stage 20 didn’t fall into the camp of being really dull or really thrilling. It was just a bit weird.
Let’s start with the day before. Rumour has it that the Ineos Grenadiers had been standing in a car park in Italy practicing how they were going to execute their bike change in the 25 metre-long zone that the riders were permitted to use at the base of the Monte Lussari climb. They didn’t use the then race leader Geraint Thomas for this dress rehearsal, presumably to avoid any unnecessary fatigue, but instead drafted in his teammates as bike change dummies.
Hopping on and off bikes as quick as possible has sort of become normalised to the seasoned fans among us who have seen it before in cyclo-cross or in past time trials which have required a bike change, but imagine trying to seriously explain to someone why Salvatore Puccio is jumping on and off a bike in a cold car park in the early hours. Good luck.
Spare a thought for the team staff and mechanics too, working into the night the day before to prepare not one, not two, but three bikes for every rider. Gear changes on the bikes would have been necessary for the steep climb, components like bottle cages would have been removed in order to save every gramme of weight. Logistically, this stage was a headache.
Some teams took it further than others, too. Rumour has it that Jumbo-Visma flew out a specific mechanic who specialises in the bike change fiasco – to be fair, Roglič’s switcheroo was very smooth. But regardless of how dialled these changes were, they still looked a little bit silly. Seeing Thomas’s trembling hands as he switched his helmet from the aero time trial lid to a normal, better-ventilated road helmet as quickly as possible and then go cyclo-cross style back on to his bike made me feel as nervous as he probably was and really made me question: if something goes wrong here, if his hand slips and he drops the helmet, it could actually decide the entire outcome of three weeks of bike racing.
But even crazier still were the riders who came in the first one or two ‘waves’ (the peloton was set off in three groups in order to give team cars a chance to bring riders back down the mountain). The likes of Laurenz Rex and Mark Cavendish waved and wheelied up the climb, exciting fans and giving us some entertainment on TV. Fundamentally though, this is supposed to be one of the biggest races in the world – where else would you see that sort of thing in elite sport?
Maybe that is what makes cycling special, and perhaps fans who lined the sides of the road on the Monte Lussari would say it was one of the most entertaining races they’ve seen, but I also couldn’t help but think the whole thing was getting a little bit ridiculous.
It seems like as well as the stage winner, the mechanics executing those bike changes should have got to stand on the podium too. Is it really right to place so much pressure on something the riders themselves have very little control over, with so much margin for error?
It’s true that we got the spectacle the organisers were hoping for at the finish of the race as fans roared the final general classification contenders up the climb and the end result was truly nail-biting, but for the hours I watched before that, it was hard not to seriously consider what a strange and risky stage this really was.
And at the end of it all, there was Mark Cavendish waving to his team staff and grinning as he got a cable car back down the mountain, still dressed in full lycra, cleats and all. He was getting back quickly for tomorrow's stage, which is sort of a race for the last bit, but for the first bit it's just a procession for the overall winner, who we've already decided has won before the race has actually come to a real end. It’s one strange sport, ey?