Monday, May 18, 2009
I read late yesterday evening that there was a protest at yesterday’s Giro d’Italia stage in Milan. You can imagine my surprise. I only saw a few minutes of the stage before I had to go get on with my day, but at the point I saw, the peloton was somewhere around the 6 laps of the 15k downtown circuit remaining and was spread gutter to gutter, chatting. In other words, it looked exactly like I would expect a pointless, ill-conceived, pancake flat, city center circuit race to look like if you were foolish enough to place it after the hectic opening week of a grand tour. You know, like a post-Tour exhibition crit, but with less authentic action.
It turns out the slow riding was indeed a protest, however, even if the protest did look suspiciously like “what would have happened anyway.” We’ll leave the basic, fundamental ridiculousness of this stage on the back burner, for now, and have a look at this little bit of nonviolent revolution. Specifically, the riders were protesting the safety of the Milan circuit itself; some coverage hinted that riders were also more generally protesting what they view as some questionable safety decisions by the organizers throughout the first week of the race. Was the rider’s effective neutralization of the stage, with stage times tossed out the window and just the final 10k raced in earnest, justified? I’m of a bit of a split opinion on that one, leaning towards “yes,” I suppose.
The immediate concern was Sunday’s Milan circuit, which reportedly funneled riders from two lane roads into single-lane corners, took in as many of the city’s tram tracks as possible, was strewn with parked cars, and was segregated by tape rather than barriers. Adding to the potential mayhem was the fact that the course didn’t really have anything to break the field up – in other words, they’d more than likely take in all those corners, tracks, and cars as a tightly packed group, lap after lap after lap. Of course, I wasn’t there, but it does sound like a recipe for disaster, and when you’re facing a recipe for disaster, whether you’re a pro cyclist or an accountant, I do think that you have the right to say something before swan-diving into the empty pool headfirst.
To me, the fact that there were cars parked on a closed course says it all, and in and of itself gives riders ample reason to call the organizer’s entire attitude toward rider safety into question. There is, of course, the problem of riders potentially striking the parked cars on the course. There’s also the potentially more troublesome problem of the motorist getting in, starting his car, and driving it away, only to encounter Danilo DiLuca (LPR) et. al. rounding the next corner at full tilt. Now, I’ve seen cars being towed, carried, or bounced from race courses prior to jerkwater amateur crits throughout the American southeast, a region that hardly has the same affection and appreciation for bicycle racing as northern Italy. And even though it was the early 1990s and the color pink abounded on bikes and jerseys, those races were certainly no Giro d’ Italia. But they still got the cars off the damn course. So does RCS expect people to believe that there was no way the organizer of the biggest races in Italy could have worked with the city of Milan to have those cars removed in time for the city’s showcase stage? If we can agree that that scenario seems ridiculous, the only other explanation would be that RCS didn’t try to address the problem, which reflects an alarmingly negligent attitude towards race security.
The broader complaints about hairy road courses during the first week? Whether those are protestable offenses by organizer RCS is less clear cut, since what’s safe or unsafe in those cases relies a little more on rider judgement than does the Milan problem. Just as parking my car in front of my house is really dangerous if I try to slide the car in sideways at 50 miles an hour, yes, some of the Giro descents and finishes are dangerous if you try to take them at superhuman speed. And just as most normal people can park in front of my house, most normal people (at least the ones reading this site) could ride down those descents and negotiate the stage finishes. What makes these things safe or unsafe, of course, is in how fast you try to do it, and how big a game of chicken you’re willing to play while doing so. When is the course to blame, and when is it the riders' fault for not slowing down?
So where do you draw the safety/responsibility line between the riders and the course designers? Sure, if a descent is too damaged, exposed, or technical to be taken at reasonable bike race speed, then the organizer should obviously avoid it. But when an organizer eyes an otherwise suitable descent, with new pavement and beautifully cambered hairpins, does he have to factor in the thought that some headbanger who needs a contract next year will take unreasonable risks for the chance at scoring the victory, smearing himself on the retaining wall in the process?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear, and as you get farther into it, it just gets harder to determine what should be deemed “safe.” For instance, the “course design / safety / how fast can you ride it” issue is plenty visible in cyclocross, where half the trick is to see how fast you can ride whatever the organizer’s thrown at you without falling over. And in all but the most egregiously bad course design, taking the challenge at a reasonable speed for your skill level is the rider’s problem. However, you get a number of pre-ride chances to test out your theories on the ‘cross course before you go barreling into that muddy turn in competition at 30 kph; in the grand tours, riders are pretty much seeing the course for the first time as they go, and they’re going at 70 kph. Taking that into account, is any of this really safe?
Reasonable care seems to be the best riders can ask of organizers. You know, like maybe not using that 100kph blind curve leading to a sheer dropoff at kilometer 200 of a stage, or not sending the peloton barreling down the four lane autoroute into downtown, then doglegging them into some cobbled, six-foot-wide medieval back alley for the sprint. Has RCS exercised that reasonable care in planning this year’s stages? I’m sitting about 3,000 miles too far west to really know, but the people who really have to worry about it are saying that RCS hasn’t. Bike racers are a whiney bunch, of course, but as much as I'd like to disregard the complaints, you seldom hear complaints like this about safety at the Tour de France.
I will say this, though – the Italians at RCS may not be as safety-conscious as the French at ASO, but they are funnier. Giro director Angelo Zomegnan, understandably frustrated that the riders had effectively blown what should have been a big advertisement for Milan and the Giro, snapped to the AP, “This circuit was explosive, full of bursts, and required you to get your ass off the seat. But it seems like certain riders who aren’t so young anymore didn’t want to do that. Today, the riders’ legs were shorter and their tongues grew.”
Unless I’m mistaken, he just called protest figureheads DiLuca and Armstrong old, and possibly lazy. Tune in tomorrow, when unless the peloton shapes up, he may just call Damiano Cunego short and Ivan Basso’s sister fat.
- Pedro Horillo (Rabobank) fell off a cliff. Seriously, fell off a cliff. Fortunately, despite some injuries that would seem more serious if not viewed in the context of falling off a cliff, he seems to have a pretty good prognosis. When he’s feeling better, he can take comfort in the fact that he’s now become the Wim Van Est for a whole new generation.
- Mark Cavendish (Columbia) won Sunday’s stage, which you might expect in a flat, 10 kilometer race that ended in a sprint. Andrew Hood did an interview with him afterwards, during which he asked if the win meant that Cavendish had “worked out how to beat Petacchi.” To that, Cavendish retorted, “I don’t think I understand the question. He beat me once all year. I won in Milan-San Remo, I won in Tirreno. Today was just putting right what I messed up in the first stage.” The snappish answer was perfectly justified given the question, but I felt for Hood. There are some times during interviews when, just as you're asking the question, you realize you've phrased it totally wrong. Then you just have to shut up and wait as the line-drive answer comes hurtling back at your head.
- Cavendish’s win capped what’s been an obviously remarkable week for Columbia, a week that also includes wins in the previous two stages from teammates Edvald Boassen Hagen and Kanstantsin Sivtsov. Add to those wins the team time trial victory, Cavendish’s time in pink, and Thomas Lovkvist’s time in pink and the young rider’s jersey, and you couldn’t hope for a much better first week for a team without a proven GC threat. Credit the riders, of course, but also team director Bob Stapleton, who bet heavily on youth when he took over the T-Mobile squad that morphed into Columbia. Those guys are paying off now, and earlier than a lot of people expected them to, and it's nice to see a bit of a changing of the guard.
- Mike Barry is one guy on Columbia who isn’t young, but he is strong, and he is very nice, at least according to Cervelo’s Ted King (and a number of others, myself included). But what struck me about Barry this week was his own diary entry in VeloNews, which managed to put one difference between the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in much more succinct language than I’ve ever been able to: “While the Tour de France is formulaic in its structure, the Giro is a mishmash of stages.” I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it's true.
- Astana’s little jersey change didn’t really tell us much after all, did it? In the end, the new design was just the current jersey with the non-paying sponsors’ logos faded back. So in essence, Astana spend lord-knows-how-much money to effectively do the same thing we did when I was 17 and one of our club sponsors didn’t pay – black out their logo with a Sharpie marker. Of course, the idea that the new design would hint at the new sponsors was just the way I and many others read the team’s comments prior to the design's release, and it proved to be an overreaching interpretation of those comments. The new kit does, as the team promised, reflect “the significant changes that are ahead for the team.” It’s just that, contrary to what we expected, the new design only told us what we already knew – that most of the consortium that makes up the Astana sponsorship ain’t paying, and people hate not getting paid.
- We haven’t had a real note on the media in awhile, so here’s one for today: Can we quit with all the damn Twitter quotes yet? Yes, I realize that Twitter, like team press releases and such, can be a good source for information and can give you a basic read on what’s on riders’ minds. And at least most writers are openly stating where the quotes came from – which is better than those “news” articles I read every day that use the same quotes and copy I get in my inbox via press releases. (Although, with the prevalence of Twitter, I suppose you’d have to be a fool to try to pass off a tweet as the product of first-hand journalism.) So what’s wrong with using Twitter postings in articles? Nothing on occassion, but in overusing them, reporters are letting the subjects of their article control the message by only answering questions that nobody, save the Twitterer, has asked. After all, Twitter is nothing more than people interviewing themselves, and giving pretty superficial answers at that. Now, would anyone ever really grill themselves in a public forum, or would they only ask and answer questions that are the most advantageous to them, as both interviewer and interviewee?
That's one way of looking at it ... another is, Hood gave Cav an opportunity to be gracious, and Cav (naturally) spit on it. I'd really like to like the lad, but he does everything possible to come off a petulant brat.