Arguably the best two sprinters in this year’s Giro d’Italia, Caleb Ewan and Tim Merlier, have abandoned the race after ten stages.
Ewan cited knee pain, leaving the race midway through stage 8. Merlier’s team released a statement on today’s rest day explaining that the Belgian rider was suffering from stomach problems and fatigue. Even before the race, Ewan had hinted to the media that he most likely wouldn’t try to complete the full 21 stages.
Sprinters leaving Grand Tours early is nothing new: for generations they have gone home before big mountain stages. Think back to the days of Mario Cipollini controversially posing on the beach after abandoning the Giro, or allegedly turning up the air conditioning in his room to try and make himself ill so he could leave the race.
Of course, Ewan and Merlier’s reasons for leaving the Giro this year are more than fair and, really, bear no comparison to the escapades of Cipollini. The point is, riders have done it for years, which is why Eddy Merckx’s recent comments about Ewan’s exit are surprising, and perhaps a little harsh.
Merckx is cycling’s greatest, a man who Ewan undoubtedly has the utmost respect for. For the Australian rider to be called out, so publicly, by a figure of Merckx’s stature will likely have been upsetting to Ewan, who explained in his own statement how hard he has worked for his two Giro stage wins.
Merckx wrote in his column for Het Niewsblad that Ewan showed a “total lack of professionalism and lack of respect for the Giro and the sport of cycling”. He argued that Ewan deserved a sanction and for all of his bonuses from his team, Lotto Soudal, to be taken away. His son, Axel Merckx, also contributed to the controversy, saying that Ewan had shown a lack of respect towards the organisation with his sudden departure.
Merckx’s argument is not completely unfounded, though. Grand Tours are a test of endurance and mental fortitude; to win a stage after 20 days of racing is a different proposition to winning one after two days of racing. However, in both of their statements, Merlier and Ewan argued that if they continued the Giro they would not be able to compete at their best for the rest of the season. Whether fatigue, or illness, or injury, we’d feel poorer for a lack of strength-in-depth in the bunch sprints for the remainder of the year.
This year's Giro has seen some dramatic sprints, but in the second half of the race they will be few and far between (Photo: Getty Images)
For the majority of the remainder of the Giro, though, their presence would probably have gone more or less unnoticed at the back of the grupetto as they laboured over the mountains.
The responsibility to incentivise the sprinters to remain in the race lies in the hands of the organisation. In this year’s Giro, the riders had 5 sprint opportunities within the first 10 stages of the race. With 11 stages remaining, only two of them will realistically end in a bunch sprint. To even reach these stages, the sprinters will need to drag themselves over Italy’s most hellish mountains with an ever-present eye on the day’s time cut.
Is it really worth it? As easy as it is for us armchair spectators to judge, any domestique will tell you the relentless impact on the body that the second and third week of a Grand Tour impart. For sprinters those long mountainous days are a hefty price to pay for two shots at a win.
If the organisation expects pure sprinters to remain in the race for the entire 21 stages, they need to give them something back. The Tour de France serves as the perfect example, the Champs Elysées has established itself as the Mecca of bunch sprinting. To win there is the dream of all the fast men, and it carries so much clout that it’s worth the struggles through the mountains which they have to endure to get there.
Sprinters are doing nothing wrong by putting their form and their ambitions for the rest of their season ahead of completing a Grand Tour. Sponsors pay salaries because of wins and not participation – completing a Grand Tour gives no reward other than perhaps some moral high ground and a pat on the back from the traditionalists of our sport.
If the organisers of the Giro want riders like Caleb Ewan to finish their race, the onus is on them to give sprinters some more opportunities to fight for.