Extreme weather and rose-tinted nostalgia
The decision to shorten stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia due to extreme weather signifies a big shift in professional cycling's attitudes to rider well-being
Back in 1988 legendary Aussie tough nut Allan Peiper invested in his own pair of ski gloves. He needed them: he was doing the Giro.
While we remember Andy Hampsten cementing his Giro victory in an atrocious snowstorm over the Gavia Pass in that year, Peiper remembers fellow racers huddling around a blazing oil drum close to where the road topped out, some of them in tears. He had his soigneur yank off his sodden ski gloves and replace them with a pair of Italian army gloves, provenance unknown. He got back on the bike and descended the pass. It was just what you did. Cyclists got on with it.
Cycling is still an extreme endurance sport. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, even if they have very recently ridden 100 wet miles up and down the Passo Giau on stage 16 of a Grand Tour and taken temporary leave of their senses. Yet when the queen stage of the 2021 Giro d’Italia was shortened to remove two high mountain passes, it was hard not to feel that the sport had lost something it once possessed.
This stage amendment wasn’t an invocation of the UCI’s five-year-old extreme weather protocol; the riders’ association, the CPA, presented what it claimed was the majority view of the peloton and the Giro acted in accordance, removing two cold and slick descents. On the evidence of the day, however, those passes were not impossible to cross.
Some in the peloton – Dan Martin, Michael Hepburn, Elia Viviani – will remember the stage of the 2014 Giro when they were sent over the Gavia pass in a snowstorm and confusion surrounded the neutralisation of the race during the descent. Conditions on that day were much, much worse.
I’m reminded of that scene in Gladiator where Maximus dispatches his opponents into the afterlife in double-quick time and yells at the silent crowd: “Are you not entertained?!” Are you not entertained!?”
If any of those riders who suffered the stage to Cortina d’Ampezzo for our entertainment are reading this, feel free to chuck some swords our way while we sip our wine. Because well, are we not? We were still treated to a great stage and a worthy winner, even though the TV choppers were grounded and the day had all the live televisual content of a stage of the women’s Giro Rosa (ie. none whatsoever). We’ll never know if the outcome would have been different if they had raced 212km, not 153km, but it seems unlikely.
In China last weekend there was a tragic example of the risks of sending athletes into the mountains in adverse weather: 21 runners died during a 100km ultra-marathon event after the weather reportedly turned bad. While we shouldn’t rush to compare those horrible circumstances with the Giro, it was a timely reminder that humans occasionally believe that risks do not exist because they cannot observe them.
We’ll never know how close the Giro might have come to disaster on stage 16, but that is a good thing and the Giro should be applauded for its precautionary attitude. Modern pro cyclists are different athletes to those in 1988, arguably skinnier and less resilient to the cold, and the risks are different. Sending them into the high mountains still jeopardises their wellbeing, if not their lives.
Cycling is a different sport. Times have changed. We cannot reasonably dispute that decision. We cannot expect modern cyclists to emulate those feats of human fortitude that comprise the sport’s collective memory.
But we are allowed to stick on the rose-tinted spectacles and pine for the years gone by. The snowy epics. The heroes warming their hands by the fire. Their bloody-minded tenacity. Those days are gone, and they’re not coming back.