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Boring Racing to Continue; Why All the Calls to Cancel the Giro? Juvenile Twitter Battles Overshadow the Race, Mo Wilson Trial Delayed; Cycling Media Shuffles ...
· Boring Racing Likely to Continue at Giro – Until Stage 20
· Why So Many Calls to Cancel the Giro??
· Bizarre Twitter Battles Overshadow the Race … and the Sport
· Moriah Wilson Trial Delayed
· Cycling Media Shuffle Continues
The 2023 Giro d’Italia enters its final phase this week, with four out of the last six stages featuring difficult summit finishes, including a brutal stage 20 time trial (with an absurdly steep final seven kilometers) that will almost certainly decide the race. A byproduct of this backloaded route is that outside of a few exciting breakaways – like Sunday’s stage 15, where American Brandon McNulty outfoxed and overpowered EF’s Ben Healy and Israel-Premier Tech’s impressive neo-pro Marco Frigo – the race has almost been stuck in a near standstill. Given that the top three contenders for the overall win – Geraint Thomas, Primož Roglič, and João Almeida – currently only separated by 22 seconds, and when combined with the Giro’s arguably out-of-date course design, it seems that this year’s event has created the perfect cocktail for negative racing. There were no significant GC changes, or even any serious attempts to gain time, throughout the entire second week of the race. One positive from the lack of GC action is that young and previously unknown riders, like Frigo or his teammate, Canadian Derek Gee, have had room to shine in competitive breakaways, and emerge as budding stars.
While there hasn’t been that much action on the road, there has been no shortage of drama surrounding the race. Multiple cycling platforms have argued (here, here and here ) that the Giro – which has raced through multiple rainy days and seen a significant number of riders drop out due to illness and crashes – should simply be canceled mid-race to stop the suffering. As well-meaning as these arguments are intended to be, this is, of course, absurd. It is obviously healthy for riders to be able to negotiate with organizers and question if portions of individual stages are necessary and/or safe (as occurred on stage 13), but if entire three-week events are called off simply due to chilly temperatures, rain or crashes, it is difficult to imagine a future for this sport. While we understand that racing nearly every day in the cold and rain is a miserable experience for the riders, if this Giro were to be called off at its midway point, how could the spring classics – which are often raced in very similar conditions – be seen as acceptable? At its core, cycling is an outdoor sport that is held across a wide range of weather conditions, and as long as the conditions don’t exceed the UCI’s clearly-defined extreme weather protocol (UCI rule 2.2.029 bis) – and the riders are not put into a clearly dangerous situation – the show must go on, no matter how uncomfortable it might be for the participants. After all, it is important to remember that chilly and wet weather is the norm for this time of the year in parts of Italy, not the outlier. Furthermore, this Giro’s attrition rate through 12 stages is high, but not historically so; through 12 stages, the 2022 Vuelta was 20%, and the 2020 Giro was 19%.
Racing in adverse conditions is nothing new in competitive cycling. Foul weather is celebrated in cyclocross, is a fact of life in mountain bike racing, and is simply a condition that all road racers must acclimate to in the UCI’s taxing and cross-seasonal calendar. Race leaders have crashed out from grand tours in inclement conditions, and inclement conditions have completely reshaped the general classification of stage races and outcomes of single day races throughout the modern sport’s history. The examples are both beautiful and brutal, and almost too many to mention. Whether or not event organizers are willing to truncate courses or cancel a race are as much a concern for the sport’s economics as it is for rider and team staff safety. Furthermore, logistics dictate that one cannot simply reschedule for a better day in the case of a stage race, or move to a day which conflicts with another race on the UCI calendar. However, better and more universally binding decision criteria across the sport’s many disparate race organizers, and stronger overall athlete representation, could have smoothed out some of the rough spots highlighted in this year’s Giro.
The other melodrama overshadowing the race has been a juvenile sideshow of Twitter skirmishes. Given the furor around the weather, and when questioned about whether today’s riders were getting soft, racer leader Thomas suggested that there were various other “differences” between today’s racers and those of twenty years ago – seeming to hint at doping prevalence of yesteryear. This got up the hackles of former American pro and commentator Chris Horner – often suspected of doping himself – who then spent several YouTube minutes castigating Thomas for being a member of Team Ineos (formerly Sky) and its controversial policy of “marginal gains.” Elsewhere, EF boss Jonathan Vaughters appeared to directly mock Groupama-FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, who was upset and in tears after narrowly losing out on stage 13. Vaughters’ outburst apparently got a few laughs on Twitter, and he later bragged that it was his highest one day increase in followers ever. However, these and other inflammatory comments made behind the thin veil of "I was only kidding" justifications do much more than derail the sport's public image; it is the same kind of cyber-bullying that measurably harms the emotional well-being of the sport's participants and alienates fans. Furthermore, this kind of sniping will certainly not win Vaughters’ EF team any friends and allies in the peloton and could materially hurt their chances of gaining cooperation in future breakaways.
Outside of the illness, injuries and unexpected exits of Geoghegan Hart and Evenepoel, another feature of the Giro so far has been the familiar sight of the small regional Italian teams forcing their way into breakaways. While only a small number of them are successful – like stage 7, where Eolo’s Davide Bais won the stage – it is still worth it for teams to devote their energy to get into these moves. They provide valuable TV time for their sponsors, and, perhaps more important, they allow RCS to give the impression of high stakes and avoid the peloton slow-rolling through a stage. However, it is worth pointing out that an upcoming UCI regulation will likely end this tradition. While it is currently up to the discretion of the race organizers to fill their wildcard slots, a new and slightly obscure UCI rule (2.1.007 bis), which goes into effect in 2024, will force Grand Tour organizers to select from only the Top 50 teams in the UCI Team Rankings. Furthermore, this will step down to the top 40 in 2025 and finally settle on just the top 30 teams in 2026 and beyond. This means local Italian teams like Corratec, Eolo, Bardiani, and Spanish teams like Burgos-BH and Caja-Rural, which regularly finish close to or outside of the top 30 in the UCI team rankings, will struggle to be invited to their own country’s grand tour. Thus, these early “for show” breakaways could become a thing of the past.
It has now been over a year since the tragic murder of gravel racer Moriah Wilson and the sordid stories that emerged thereafter. But after some earlier tabloid-style “true crime” TV specials and a couple of detailed but highly controversial articles a few months ago (here and here), the story has largely fallen out of the mainstream media. The trial of Kaitlin Armstrong, who is charged in the murder after being extradited from Costa Rica, was to have begun in late June. However, last week there was news that the trial has been pushed back until at least October. Armstrong’s defense attorneys apparently requested a delay to “secure witnesses and other evidence for Armstrong's defense.” It has to be disheartening to Wilson’s family and friends to see the wheels of justice start to slow down. Armstrong is currently being held in jail in Austin, Texas under a $3.5 million bond.
The shuffling and reconstitution of the cycling media landscape continues unabated. After the downsizing and turmoil at Outside’s cycling group last fall, there was the announcement last week that the company’s three previously existing road cycling brands (VeloNews, CyclingTips and Peloton) would finally be combined into one new title to be called, simply, Velo. The company promised continued and intensive coverage of pro road racing, as well as expanded coverage of e-bikes, commuting, culture, travel, how-tos and human-interest features. Meanwhile, a couple of months ago, several of the former writers and editors associated with those legacy brands reconstituted themselves into a new independent media platform named Escape Collective. And there are more cycling-related podcasts than even the most dedicated fan can keep track of. Beyond some of the more long-lived and legacy groups like The Cycling Podcast and Lance Armstrong’s The Move, there are a number of recent and well-informed podcasts. The Escape Collective is now producing four new weekly podcasts, and there are a number of new British-based offerings; Never Strays Far features cycling veterans Ned Boulting, David Millar and Pete Kennaugh, while veteran journalists Jeremy Whittle and Peter Cossins have just started RadioCycling – a bi-weekly 30-minute wrap-up of all of pro cycling’s biggest stories.
With all of the bickering over whether or not high-profile bike races should continue in light of extreme (or in some cases, inconvenient) weather, the cancellation of Formula One’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix on May 17 may have been lost in the shuffle. The same weather patterns which have been creating havoc for the Giro led to flooding, and tragically, several deaths in the region. More relevant to the planned F1 race, the area surrounding the Imola track was considered unsafe and the decision to cancel was at least partly influenced by strains on Italian emergency services trying to safeguard and provide aid to citizens. The cancellation was the second to affect F1 this season, after April’s China race installment was cut just prior to the 2023 campaign due to late pandemic-related travel concerns. Hence, it will be informative to cycling and other sports how F1 carries forward with the rest of its planned races this year, given the potential for other tracks to be affected by similarly adverse weather.
To close on a feel-good note, this weekend saw the return of WNBA star Brittney Griner to basketball competition for the first time since being liberated from a Russian jail. Griner was detained in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine under controversial circumstances, as were many foreign nationals from Western countries and others in the international community that opposed the senseless Russian aggression and were unfortunately trapped on Russian soil at that time. Although Griner’s Phoenix Mercury team fell to the Chicago Sky 75-69, she didn’t miss a step – posting a dominant and emotionally emphatic 27 point, 10 rebound double-double. In addition, the WNBA provided a platform to highlight the critical work of U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger D. Carstens, who was instrumental in organizing a prisoner exchange which gained Griner her freedom. Likewise, the league highlighted the ongoing work of Bring Our Families Home, an organization which seeks to repatriate 54 other American citizens who are wrongfully detained or held hostage throughout the globe.