There is nothing easy about organising a bike race, and definitely not one of the sport’s three Grand Tours with a global audience fixed on events.
There are things that can be done, however, to avoid incidents, accidents and farcical conditions, and the decision of the Vuelta a España’s organisers, Unipublic and ASO, to start the opening stage team time trial in Barcelona so late in the day backfired catastrophically.
Spain may well be in a historic drought, particularly in Catalonia where the opening four stages are taking place, but there is always a risk of rain and always a chance of a summer thunderstorm.
The sunset time in Barcelona on Saturday evening was 20:35; Soudal - Quick-Step, the defending champions through Remco Evenepoel, left the start ramp at 20:19. Expectation in dry conditions was that teams would complete the 14.8km in around 16 minutes, meaning Quick-Step would cross the line just as the sun went down for the day.
What actually happened was that an hour before the race began at 18:55, the skies darkened, the thunder roared and there were flashes of lightning. Almost as soon as the riders started navigating the technical course full of corners and tight bends, the rain began to pour, and it didn’t relent.
By the time Evenepoel and his seven teammates were riding, the sky was as dark as night. Casper Pedersen, one of Evenepoel’s lieutenants, bemoaned that so bad was visibility that he couldn’t accurately corner. At the finish, Evenepoel fumed, labelling conditions “s**t” and gesticulating to the TV cameras. “It was life and death in the wheel,” he said. “This was just ridiculous. It was super dangerous. The organisation must think about safety. You couldn’t see a metre in front of you.”
The start time was elected to ensure a maximum TV audience on a Saturday evening, and to also attract more fans to the roadside. But how did the risk assessment not take into account that there could have been a possibility of dark clouds or rain?
It is always easy in hindsight to be critical when things go wrong, and racing in the rain is part of being a professional cyclist, but forcing riders to race under darkened skies was both unnecessary and dangerous.
Watching the racing was anything but enjoyable, but the advantage was most certainly with the teams who left earlier, and DSM-Firmenich were the surprising winners, posting a time of 17:30. Movistar matched the Dutch team, but DSM took the win by a few hundredths of a second. Lorenzo Milesi, an Italian 21-year-old, is the race’s first leader.
Evenepoel, despite the difficulties and his protestations, finished the stage the best placed out of the GC favourites, just six seconds back on Milesi. He has a 14-second lead to Geraint Thomas of Ineos Grenadiers, 26 seconds over the Jumbo-Visma duo of Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard, and is 31 seconds better than Juan Ayuso and João Almeida of UAE Team Emirates.
The talking point, however, is not who looks in the best form ahead of the following 20 stages, but whether the Vuelta’s organisers got their decision to have an evening time trial badly wrong. The peloton certainly thinks so.