The 1998 edition of Tirreno-Adriatico started with dark skies and an even fouler mood. During a rainy opener around the pretty tourist town of Sorrento, there were several crashes.
A young Paolo Bettini ended up in the local hospital, and the bunch protested about the treacherous, narrow roads and barriers with protruding feet. Before this commotion, the race’s biggest star abandoned: an overweight and feverish Jan Ullrich called it quits after 30 kilometres.
On day two, an innocuous stage between Sorrento and the seaside resort of Baia Domizia, everything went from bad to worse. Forty-seven kilometres from the finish, there were two simultaneous crashes on rain-slicked roads: one near the front of the pack, another in the middle. The road through the village of Calvi Vecchia was filled with stricken bikes and bodies. Riso Scotti rider Alessandro Spezialetti broke his femur, and three others called it quits.
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Eighteen breakaways were already away when this happened; another 17 took off from the crash scene, including world champion Laurent Brochard and caught up.
Defending champion Roberto Petito and peloton elder statesman Maurizio Fondriest chased, shouting in vain at them to slow down. Mapei capitano Michele Bartoli asked for the race to be neutralised to allow those behind to get back on. The organisers refused.
“We’re not animals,” Bartoli told La Gazzetta dello Sport after the race. “When 100 riders end up on the ground, the solidarity of the bunch should be natural… I could have gone and caught up with the leaders, but I’d have felt like a worm.” Later, the behaviour of the breakaways came under scrutiny; fugitives Claudio Chiappucci and Jan Svorada claimed they were unaware of the seriousness of the crash behind.
In front, Erik Zabel sprinted to the stage win, helped by having four Telekom team-mates with him. Meanwhile, the peloton held a go-slow protest at the lack of neutralisation. It was rumoured that a few riders had spat at the jury and race directors after the crash. In Baia Domizia, they symbolically stopped just before the finish line, with Bartoli and Fondriest standing front and centre. “Where is the professionalism? Who is teaching young guys how to behave in cycling?” Fondriest railed.
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The Spanish president of the UCI jury, Roberto Coca Cuellar, upped the time limit to 26’15”, 25% of the maximum time, due to the adverse weather conditions, but that still only allowed for sixteen more riders to squeeze inside the cut.
The commissaires took a dim view of the rebels. Following the rules, they disqualified all 125 riders who were fuori tempo. Race director Carmine Castellano, added fuel to the inferno, quipping: “I only need three riders [left] to fill a podium.” He added that they were considering banning some riders from future Gazzetta races due to their behaviour.
Some directeur sportifs were prepared to give the day’s prize money to charity, so long as the bunch was reinstated. A few of the mutineers turned up at Sessa Aurunca for stage three, ready to race, expecting an organisational U-turn. No way. As UCI boss Hein Verbruggen added that week: “Rules are rules. The riders gambled and lost. The jury, not the riders, is the boss.”
So, two-thirds of the 184-strong field were excluded, including big names Bartoli, Fondriest, Gianni Bugno, Davide Rebellin and Mario Cipollini. Saeco and Mercatone Uno did not have a single rider left in the race; several teams only had a lone man remaining. As they say in Italy, che casino: what a mess.
Twenty or so years on, what does Maurizio Fondriest make of it all? “We shouldn’t have gone slow and got time cut. It was a mistake on the part of the riders,” he reflects. “Sometimes when something like that happens in a race, you are too taken by the moment and make rash decisions.”
And so, Tirreno-Adriatico limped east with a truncated field of fifty. By its conclusion in Benedetto del Tronto six days later, only 47 remained. Star Brochard abandoned after riding into the back of a braking team car while returning from a natural break.
Casino’s Swiss veteran Rolf Jaermann won the race, holding onto a four-second lead over Franco Ballerini.
As for the rebels, what did they do for the rest of the week? “We went training, but it wasn’t the same as racing,” Fondriest says.
That was borne out by the form and fitness of Erik Zabel: the German won Tirreno-Adriatico’s last two stages, then added a second Milan-San Remo to his palmarès a few days later.